Back in the early 1960’s, when I was too young to buy beer in New Jersey, but not on Staten Island in New York, I first tasted and fell in love with Ballantine Ale. On the green and gold label it said, “India Pale Ale”and it was, at the time, a true outlier among beers. You could travel the length and breadth of the country in those days and not find another India Pale Ale. Then, times changed and about the time that Ballantine disappeared its place on store shelves was filled with bottles of colored water with labels that say “light beer”.
Then, about 25 years ago, the world began to come to its senses and an explosion of boutique breweries occurred in the US and eventually around the world. Suddenly, the India Pale Ale…IPAs…became all the rage. And Ballantine Ale even returned. Now brewers are calling almost anything an IPA just to get some attention, but really? Blueberry IPA? Grapefruit IPA? (Sorry. Calling a beer with blueberry in it an IPA is like calling a Red Ryder BB gun and Assault weapon).
Which brings us to France, where for most of the past 20-odd years we have been traveling here, IPAs were not only impossible to find, but got you a funny look if you asked for one. And don’t get me wrong, I like all kind of beers, and there are hundreds of beers…wonderful beers… to choose from here in Europe. But I do love IPAs, and after a time here I get a hankerin’ for one. Especially one of my favorites, a Lagunitas; made in California and pronounced, as they say on the label: La-goo-NEE-tas.
So, one day my friend Quintin says lets go for a beer, and we head into La Fleche to the cafe/bar on the town square where he’s something of a regular. We sidle up to the bar and he introduces me to the barkeep, a young fellow in a black T-shirt with some fine tattoos and an earlobe ring the size of a silver-dollar dangling off the side of his head, Quintin making a point of letting him know I’m an American; completely unnecessary, since the first words out of my mouth will make that fact abundantly clear.
I was just about to give away my Americanness by ordering a Stella, as in Stella Artois, which is pretty much standard fare in these parts, when I spied the cooler behind Tattoo-Guy, and in it, not only an IPA, but what for all the world looked to be a Lagunitas.
“You have Lagunitas?” I stammered to the bartender. “Here?”
‘Oh, yes, “ he said, emphatically. Then he turned around to proudly display the back side of his T-shirt, with Lagunitas emblazoned in big letters. I was completely stunned.
“I can’t believe it”, I kept saying, “right here in town, in the cafe!”
“Yes,” he said, “You can get it LeClerc too.” LeClerc is the largest supermarket in the area, a kind of Wegman’s on steroids.
I had no idea. I ‘d been through the beer section at LeClerc, but never saw Lagunitas, or any American IPA, although I admit I had never actively searched for it. Some time ago I had approached the manager of the town’s largest beer-wine-liquor store to ask about American IPAs and he said they carried nothing from the US; it had to do something about imports and distributors. So, I thought, case closed.
A couple of days later I went to LeClerc and by-God, there it was, a cluster of Lagunitas IPA huddled between a French alleged IPA and some Belgian ales. I bought them all. The next week I returned and the space was empty…not a good sign. But the week after that when I returned, Lagunitas was back, and again I bought them all.
Anthony thought this behavior was a bit deranged, until he stopped by one evening and had a bottle. A few days later he and Celine’s dad, Michel, stopped by for a beer. Michel is the most French person I know. His vocabulary is largely composed of those French sounds…not quite words…that carry intricate and explicit meaning. I handed him a Lagunitas. He eyed the bottle a little suspiciously, then took a sip. His head snapped back a bit and he gave the bottle a double-take, then looked at me and said…
Well, it wasn’t so much a word as it was a French sound, a kind of combination, “Mmmmm”, and “Whaaaa?” and “Bon!”
Before I could ask the obvious question, do you like it, he said, “What IS this?”
“That,” I said, is an American beer, called Lagunitas. From California”
“Ahhhh, Californie. Cest BON!” said Michel, as he took another enthusiastic slug.
Now, I have some mixed feelings about all this. On one hand I’m delighted to introduce my French friends to things they may never have had before and which they may like. On the other hand, I’m worried about the supply chain. I may be the only American actively looking for Lagunitas for 50 miles in any direction, and I don’t want to be proselytizing for a beer that is in limited supply.
Recently Anthony and I were some 50 minutes away in Le Mans at a huge hyper-market (computers or sushi, your choice), and in their massive beer section, sure enough, a tiny cluster of Lagunitas bottles. I bought them all.
Excessive behavior you say? A couple of days ago I got a text from Anthony on his way home from the office. “Throw a couple of bottles of Lagunitas in the fridge. I’m coming over.”
When he arrived he said, “You know, LeClerc is out of Lagunitas. I was looking there today”.
“I know,” I said, “I was there yesterday. I bought them all.”