I want to love Lugene. She’s* my kind of gal, afterall. Maybe not my “usual” type, but the one who makes me get a little giggly inside and reminds me of schoolyard flirtations and that time I locked lips against a barn in an idyllic farmer’s field (editor’s note: that never happened). Ah, Lugene, how I pine for you.
Except that I can’t. I don’t. I see your name and I sneer my lip ever-so-slightly in disdain. Everything about you is appealing, but I want no part of it. Not that you’re trouble, like a certain hibiscus beer I met in Salida two years ago, but because you’re just not all you promise.
Or maybe you are.
For those unfamiliar, Lugene is a chocolate milk stout brewed by Odell Brewing Company out of Fort Collins, Colorado. The beer, enticing enough as it is, comes with a great label and a better story. From the Odell website:
“If you’ve ever been to our brewery, you’ve likely seen the old, beat-up truck that hauls away our spent grain. That truck belongs to Lugene who’s been feeding his dairy cows the hearty malt for over a decade. Named in his honor, Lugene Chocolate Milk Stout is brewed with milk sugar and milk chocolate. The rich and creamy brew reminds us of a cold glass of chocolate milk and our hometown “Aggie” roots.”
A chocolate milk stout, as simple as it sounds, is a challenge to pull off in practice. Trying to balance the chocolate with the milkiness with the sugars and still make it taste like beer is a daunting feat, and good on him (or her) who chooses to tackle it.
And Odell’s brewers are more than up to the task. I should know: when I was growing up, my parents would take a regular trip from our home in South Denver up to Fort Collins (three hours, round trip) just to fill a couple of (plain, non-branded) growlers with Odell 90 Shilling. For his 50th birthday, my dad had a keg of that same beer. Odell was one of the first breweries I visited upon turning that magical age of 21. I get inappropriately excited every year when I see their Red IPA (now Runoff Red, with a fantastic new label) and St Lupulin come out. I even had a St Lupulin track jacket that some jack-off (pun intended) stolen during a trip to South Carolina. And the Meddler – oh the Meddler – that beer can hang out with me any day.
I know Odell’s beers, and I know what they can do, so why am I so disappointed over Lugene?
First: brand expectations. This is an Odell beer. They aren’t a brewery that is known for putting out bad beers. By “bad”, I don’t mean beers that I, personally, don’t like. I mean beers with quality issues. That’s just not their game.
Second: style expectations. Let’s get the obvious out there: a chocolate milk stout just sounds awesome. It’s chocolate: which, as any treat-or-treater can tell you, is candy gold. It’s milk: the preferred drink of babies, Ron Burgundy, and cereal enthusiasts worldwide. It’s stout: the beer that lives in the limbo between beverage and meal. It sounds like the perfect mix. And I have had beers that live up to that promise (thank you Blackstone Brewery, my mouth still waters), so it’s not a style pipe dream, it is doable.
Third: marketing. I’m a sucker for good marketing. I unashamedly let marketing weasel in and tickle my skull meat. I loved it when Odell revamped their packaging a few years back, and I think that the new labels that have come out of them since have just strengthened the brand. When you see an Odell label, you know exactly who it belongs to (note to other breweries: consistency doesn’t have to be boring and is so important). As for the story: for anyone who has ever worked at a brewery, you know that the rancher who picks up your grain is a vital, if oft-overlooked, part of the process. Something must be done with all of that grain, and an operation the size of Odell can’t very well give it all to a local bakery, and the haul-away costs for trashing it (not to mention the waste factor) would be incredible. So the rancher becomes a crucial player. And to take a beer and name it after this unsung cog is a reminder that breweries are bigger than the beer. And I love it.
Fourth: it wasn’t just a taste. A sip. A bottle. It was two. It was two bottles of Lugene purchased on different days at different locations. And they were both letdowns. One was at a fancy pants restaurant in Denver that, for some reason that is beyond me, only serves in bottles. The second was at a friend’s house, purchased from a good liquor store. So, this isn’t a snap judgement based off of one taste at a festival when I was already an infinite number of sheets to the wind, it was two honest bottles consumed while sober in decent circumstances.
I suppose it’s time to get down to why I didn’t like the beer. Because simply saying I didn’t like it is a cop-out and uninformative. When someone says “I didn’t like it” and refuses to follow up with any qualitative data as to why, disregard them as either a fool who can’t articulate their sensory information or a trickster who wants you to fall into the same trap they did.
Anyway, off the box, back to the beer.
Lugene pours beautifully. A good, full body for a non-nitro beer and a decent head that I wish would linger just a little longer. The nose is all roasted grain and chocolate with just a wiff of milk. Exactly what I would expect and what I desired. Mouthfeel is rich, but a tad chalky. The chalkiness, I believe, comes from the added lactose. And, oh boy, is there lactose. Where I wanted the fullness of chocolate, the bite of roast, and just a hint of milk sugar to cut through the natural bitterness of the other ingredients, I found only a texture and flavor reminiscent of the inside of malted milk balls. There was no balance, there was no chocolate! It was cloying and even leaned a bit towards buttermilk with a hint of sourness. It was all just… wrong.
After my first bottle, I checked Rate Beer and Beer Advocate. What were they drinking to leave those reviews? It certainly wasn’t the beer I had so recently consumed. I want my chocolate! My caramel! My vanilla! Promises were made, dammit!
I gave it another shot because of all the reasons I mentioned above, and because I figured I had just received a mistreated bottle. So I supped. And the supping was sad, for it did not match all of the gorgeousness laid out by the brewery and corroborated by the fine reviewers online. Was there something wrong with my palate? Was I just hyper sensitive to lactose out of the blue? What was it?
Needless to say, I passed the beer around to the Bearded Brewer and our compatriots without telling them my impressions. Yes, it smelled great. No, it didn’t taste like it smelled. It was from one of my friends that I gained the analogy to the malted milk balls. All were in agreement: this beer had gone seriously off the rails.
And yet Lugene calls to me again this year. I have been on a stout kick for months, with a nigh insatiable appetite for all things dark and handsome and presented in a nonic pint. My mouth is watering just thinking of downing a glass of rich, roasted goodness. So my thoughts return to Lugene.
Because I am adventurous. Because I believe in never completely writing something off. Because I love beer in general and Colorado beer in specific. Because lightning does strike twice and it’s possible I was just unlucky enough to get two bad bottles. And because I know that I am wrong almost as much as I am right, I will give it another go. I will track down Lugene and I will order a pint and I will try to experience this beer anew. To rinse my past perceptions away with a new tongue and a new chance. A new chance on draught this time.
Maybe in the last year Lugene has matured. Maybe she’s found herself. Maybe she and I are destined to be together. Maybe first impressions really aren’t all they are cracked up to be and it’s time for me to stop being such a creep to her.
Maybe it’s time for a beer. Maybe, it’s time for a beer named Lugene.
*Yes, I know that Lugene is named after a man. However, there is a cow on the label. When I think of things I would like to drink from a cow, I prefer to think of a female cow, rather than male. Thankyouverymuch.