Monday, April 1, 2013

Battle Double IPA: Firestone Walker Double Jack vs. Mission Shipwrecked vs. Lagunitas Sucks

In the article I wrote for All Over Albany about a month ago, a sort of "most wanted" list of beers for the Capital Region, I ended up leaning heavily on the Double IPA as a prized type of beer.  From Bell's Hopslam to Russian River's Pliny the Elder, many of the top-ranked beers out there (but not available here) fall into the Double IPA category. 

And for good reason.  These beers take regular IPAs--always popular in their own right--up another level.  Bigger hop profile, higher ABV--I get the sense that the top craft brewers in the country use this style as a sort of measuring stick against each other.  And it's not just about how bitter they can make a beer, or how strong; it's a question of how to include these elements while making a complex, drinkable beer.

So after all that time spent thinking about Double IPAs while researching the article, I couldn't help but pick up a few to take home.  And after I had one, I thought, Why not have these over a few nights and compare what each brewer is doing?  So that's what I did, and here are the results.

Firestone Walker Double Jack

Well, if you're going to do a comparison like this, you might as well start with one of the most respected beers of the style.  That's the case with Firestone Walker's Double Jack Double IPA, brewed in Paso Robles, CA, a small town not far from the central coast. 

In terms of thinking about beers we can get here in the Capital Region, this is a good time to start the happy dance.  In the years since I've appreciated good beer, it wasn't until moving to Albany last year that I was actually able to find Firestone Walker beers in store--I couldn't get them in Missouri, Kansas, Ohio, or North Carolina.  At least none of the places I lived near or visited in those states. 

So it's a great thing to be able to drive to one of the nearby beverage centers in the area and pick up either a single, a six pack, or a bomber of Double Jack.  The hype I heard about this beer over those years when I couldn't get it is totally justified.  The aroma of tropical fruits draws you in but doesn't overwhelm, and the taste follows suit.  It's 9.5% ABV, but that's really masked well under the flavor of the hops and malts. 

This is a hoppy beer, to be certain, at 100 IBU, but it's not overwhelmingly bitter.  They call it mouth-puckeringly bitter on the Firestone Walker website, but really, a lot of that I think comes from the tropical bomb of flavors that are a product of the hops.  I shared this one with K, who is often turned off by some bitter pale ales or IPAs, and she was totally into it for those flavors.  With a beer like this, it's all about balance, and I think that's what Firestone Walker does well--you get that line of malty sweetness behind the hops, and the alcohol content makes this more substantial than your average IPA.

Mission Shipwrecked

San Diego might be the best beer city in the country, with amazing craft breweries lining the streets and--as in any place and field where there's a lot of competition--pushing each other to do better.  Mission isn't one of the better-known breweries out of the city, but they're along for the ride and making a bunch of beers which, sort of surprisingly, have made it out to New York. 

Since I'm typically up for trying something new--at least when it comes to food or drink--I picked up a single and poured it into my Tybee Island Lighthouse glass.  Wrong coast (Tybee Island is just outside Savannah, GA), but still sticks to Mission's theme with the whole Shipwrecked name.  Unfortunately, my favorite thing about the beer was probably its appearance in the glass--the hazy orange looked pretty sharp in the pint glass.

This isn't to say that Shipwrecked is a bad beer.  But I had it a night or two after the Double Jack, and it just couldn't compare.  It comes in at 9.25% ABV and I found the alcohol to be more prominent here, and not in an altogether pleasant way.  I also got an almost metallic bitterness with this beer; was it in the hops used, or was something off about this beer?  There was some good citrusey flavor to be had, certainly, but altogether this just wasn't a particularly well-balanced beer for this style.  But this is a new brewery--they just started in 2008--so give them credit for trying to compete with some of the major players nearby.  And maybe in time their beer can begin to match up.

Lagunitas Sucks Brown Shugga Substitute

It was exciting to find Lagunitas Sucks on the shelf at Hoosick Beverage when I was in to talk to the guys there back in February for the article, but I really screwed this one up by only getting a single--I loved this beer and only wish I had five more from a six pack to drink.

Unlike the two Double IPAs covered above, Lagunitas Sucks isn't available year-round just yet.  It started out as a substitute for their Brown Shugga in 2011 due to construction issues, but word is that the Petaluma brewery will be taking it out year-round soon--and maybe in 32 ounce jugs, or whatever the proper word would be for something of that size.  I hope they keep it in six packs, too, as 12 ounces is a much better size when I'm drinking alone or offering K a sip or two, but we'll see about that.

So what makes Lagunitas Sucks so good?  It's a similar story to the Double Jack, though in this case the ABV is lower at 7.85%.  There's a little more drinkability involved, I suppose, though it still brings a wallop to your palate.  All those tropical fruit flavors seem amped up to a perfect level; I got the taste of grapefruit, maybe mango.  And the malt was present, too, to really bring that balance. 

What more can even be said, really, about this beer?  Maybe with the seasonal brewing and excitement that surrounds it it was the freshest of these three I've compared.  And maybe just because I know I probably won't see it on shelves for some time, it's the one beer that's constantly on my mind these days, the one that everything else has trouble standing up to.

But spring is sort of here--coming and going--and the flavors of these Double IPAs seem to fit perfectly with the all the budding and blossoming that'll be going on around us.  So I'll keep looking for others in this style, going back to great available options like the Double Jack, and waiting for the day when I see that red splat on the bottle to signify the return of the Lagunitas Sucks.


  1. Thanks for taking the bullet on this one. I have had all three of these but at varying times and it's interesting to get your real time assessment. The Mission Shipwreck was on the shelf at Trader Joe's in SF; it wasn't very expensive and I remember finding it unsubtle but a good value for the buck. Lagunitas Sucks seems like a novelty, halfway between an IPA and a red ale.

    Most interesting to me is your assessment of Firestone Double Jack. I love their Union Jack and this, not so much. Seems like either the extra alcohol deadens the hops or (more likely) they think the strong beer lover wants a different flavor profile than the hophead. I feel the same about the Imperial from West Coast, my favorite IPA; I did a comparison of the regular IPAS from WC and Firestone here:

    1. I have been drinking more high-ABV beers lately, lots of imperial stouts, so I wonder if I was a bit dulled to the alcohol presence in the Double Jack.

      I should add that I totally agree with your thoughts on the Green Flash West Coast IPA--great stuff. Love the tartness you talked about. I recently picked up a bottle of their Le Freak, a Belgian IPA, and have high hopes; all their stuff I've tried has been really impressive.