Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

The Hairy Eyeball Ale

Lagunitas Brewing Co.
Petaluma, CA

Style: American Strong Ale
ABV: 9.0%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Recommended)

Pair With:
If you’re familiar with Nigel’s reviews, you may have picked up on an important theme: Nigel is a total whore when it comes to free stuff. Knowing this, you won’t be shocked when you hear the impetus behind my first ever review of California-based Lagunitas:


This isn’t the first time I selected a beer because the purchase coincided with a free pint glass; it’s happened previously with Bell’s, Great Lakes, South Shore, and Tyranena. Granted, it’s not like I purchased brews that I wasn’t interested in drinking, but there’s a good chance that whatever purchase I made that day would not have been made without the offer of free stuff.

The best thing about the Lagunitas purchase (aside from the free glass) is that I’m finally able to sit down and review a popular, nationally-known craft brewer that I’ve been meaning to touch on for a long time. Although I’ve seen plenty of Lagunitas brews all over the damn place for years, I’ve only sampled two or three different kinds, and the only one I’m sure I’ve had on more than one occasion is the IPA. I’ve also seen Lagunitas at every brew fest I’ve ever attended (yes, all three of them), but I don’t think I’ve ever visited their booth. I guess you could say this is the best-known American brewer that I personally know very little about.

Lagunitas is based in Sonoma County, placing it squarely in the heart of wine country. Like many things in Northern California, there’s a distinct “alternative” theme that’s quite prevalent (read: hippies and weed). By no means is Lagunitas the lone brewer in the NoCal region; many others like Chico’s Sierra Nevada, Fort Bragg’s North Coast, and Mendocino/Ukiah’s Mendocino Brewing give the infamous Sonoma and Napa Valley wine producers a run for their money. Not only is craft brewing a major draw locally in NoCal, but many of the brewers have found a large national audience, perhaps a bit surprising given their somewhat remote location (being near craft brew hubs like Portland, Sacramento, and the San Francisco Bay Area probably helps). Many Lagunitas brews draw upon the hippie theme, including Kill Ugly Radio, an IPA featuring Frank Zappa, Censored, an amber/red ale with the alternate name “The Kronic,” and the strong ale simply called Brown Shugga’ (you know it tastes so good …). Taking that theme into consideration, I’ve decided to conduct this review without having showered or shaved in a week, wearing an unbuttoned flannel shirt without a t-shirt underneath along with wool socks and Birkenstocks, all while being supported by a couple of stoners in the background eating massive quantities of trail mix while watching The Big Lebowski and listening to the Dead and Phish.

With a number of Lagunitas selections to choose from in order to get my free pint glass, I was initially leaning towards known quantities such as Censored or IPA … until I spotted a brew titled The Hairy Eyeball Ale. Nigel’s nothing if he isn’t completely predictable, and sexual innuendo, regardless of the degree of perversion, will get me every time. The Hairy Eyeball (listed as THEA on the New York Stock Exchange) claims to be an American strong ale that checks in at 9.0 percent ABV, so if my eyeballs weren’t hairy prior to drinking this, it will likely do the trick.

The Hairy Eyeball Ale pours like a typical strong ale: a deep amber hue reveals a mild tan head on the pour that quickly settles into a light creamy lace. Lacking the sedimentation often characteristic of the style, THEA is a translucent fiery red, sort of resembling and lightly filtered doppelbock or other similar brew. Initial aromas are dominated by malt and some fruitiness as you’d expect. Dark sugary aromas of caramel, molasses, and toffee come through initially, joined by … oops, Nigel just stuck his nose in his beer … a hint of alcohol and raisin-like dark fruits and bubbles popping inside the nostrils. There’s a decent hop profile in the aroma, but it takes a backseat to the malt and alcohol … plus, I can’t be sure now that I’ve snorted it into my veins.

The taste is good for a strong ale, but isn’t enough to make THEA anything but a high (no pun intended) three-mugger. While the flavor is well balanced between thick, sugary malt, dark fruits, and Northwest hops, it doesn’t distinguish itself enough to make it any higher (I will admit that I flirted with a four mug rating, but ultimately decided it wasn’t quite worthy). Sweet and dark sugars, mainly a Caribbean rum-like flavor of molasses dominates at first, giving THEA the typical strong ale profile. Being a NoCal brewer, Lagunitas HAD to add some hops, which was done discreetly but to nice effect. The hop profile is a bit too small to pinpoint the exact types utilized (Chinook and Centennial would be my uneducated guess), but it gives the sugars a nice citrusy bite that lightens the overall thickness. The citrus characteristics are at war with darker fruits, as raisin and candied fruit fight zestier flavors of grapefruit and orange peel in a no-holds barred cage match, one that ultimately means absolutely nothing (just like “professional” wrestling). The alcohol is well hidden, but I don’t see enough unique characteristics to make this anything above average. Medium to heavy in body, THEA goes down relatively smooth for such a complex style, though at 9.0 percent ABV this hardly qualifies as a session brew.

Overall, I guess I’m pleased. The Hairy Eyeball Ale, despite its unusual and mildly offensive moniker, has enough qualities for me to sing its praises but not enough uniqueness for me to rate it anything above a three. It’s balanced and flavorful, and worth the $9-11 for a six-pack if you’re a lover of dark beer (throw in a free glass, and you’ve got one hell of a deal). While there are far better dark offerings out there, I was properly satisfied with Lagunitas’ attempt at the American strong ale, and I look forward to reviewing them the next time I can get free stuff.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on March 28, 2008.
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