The Lagunitas Brewing Company is a brand even casual craft fans are familiar with – and it’s one that could expand into pretty much any market it wants to.
But Ron Lindenbusch, Lagunitas’ beer weasel (a job that any other company would call chief marketing officer), prefers a more mellow pace. In fact, he says, the reason the company has grown as big as it has is it never rushed its expansion.
Before joining the brewer in 1995, Lindenbusch worked in the retail end of the beer world, running a 30-tap facility that only had a handful of craft names.
“I watched a lot of brands develop their business plans,” he says. “And it became obvious to me what worked and what happened when you tried to splinter a brand. … [Lagunitas] never tried to go fast. We go into a market and work with our clients to ensure [the beers] stick, then we start to expand.”
That’s the reason you can pick up a bottle of the company’s Hop Stoopid in some markets, but not in others. It’s very methodical about when it adds new offerings.
Despite – or maybe because of – this philosophy, Lagunitas has grown into the sixth largest craft brewer in the country. Last year, the brewer produced 400,420 barrels. This year, it’s aiming for 600,420. (“Everything ends in 420 around here,” says Lindenbusch with a grin.)
A little further down Highway 101, Vinnie Cilurzo, brewer and co-owner of Russian River Brewing Company, has another unconventional view on distribution. The company’s beers are constantly in demand by beer traders – and craft fans who would love to be able to find them locally. But Russian River is very selective about which outlets are allowed to sell its beer.
The company insists the beer be kept cold at all times – when it’s brewed, when it’s shipped, when it’s stored and when it’s sold at retail. That means instead of sitting on store shelves, like most other offerings, it has to be kept in a cooler – where space is often at a premium in liquor stores. Cilurzo says that ensures the beer is always at its freshest.
His insistence on that quality control has kept Russian River out of most major West Coast beverage chains like BevMo. Your best bet at finding bottles of the company’s beer outside of its brewpub in Santa Rosa these days is at a Whole Foods. (Finding it on draft is a fair bit easier.)
It’s a philosophy that may have limited the company’s circulation (it’s currently distributed in California, Colorado, Oregon and the Philadelphia area), but Cilurzo says that’s less of a concern than people having a beer that doesn’t live up to the brewer’s standards.
Truth be told, I haven’t had a bad beer from either brewery. (And some of the experimental beers that aren’t being bottled are even more impressive.) But here are some of their must-haves. (Disagree? Let’s debate it in the comments.)
Lagunitas Sucks (Brown Shugga Substitute Ale)
Don’t believe the label. Originally a substitute for the company’s seasonal holiday beer, Sucks became so popular that the brewery made it a year round offering. As the surname implies, there’s a sweetness to the beer that blends well with – but doesn’t overwhelm – its IPA roots. The mix of grains in the beer only adds to its complexity. (ABV: 7.85%)
Lagunitas’ Cappuccino Stout
Like your stouts with a strong coffee hint? This is a midnight black, extraordinarily creamy beer that has a strong roasted flavor. It has a fairly high level of alcohol, but somehow remains incredibly smooth. There may not be such a thing as a breakfast beer, but if there was, this would qualify. (ABV: 9.2%)
Pliny the Elder
Russian River’s IPA is widely viewed as one of the best around – and for very good reason. The multi-layered flavors blend together perfectly, but you’ll still taste the hops, citrus and pine. The finish is incredibly clean – especially for a double IPA. It’s best consumed fresh – and makes that very clear on the bottle. (ABV: 8%)
Consecration or Supplication
If you’re able to get your hands on either of these Russian River offerings, grab ’em – quickly. Supplication is a wonderful sour ale with a heavy cherry flavor and clean finish, while Consecration is another sour aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels that has less of a puckering quality, but still offers a nice, dry finish. They’re among the finest sours on the market – and I’ve literally seen people squeal with joy when finding them.
(Consecration ABV: 10%)
(Supplication ABV: 7%)