In 2020, Jeff Smith rolled LUKI Brewery down 64th Avenue in Arvada with a dream: to revive the golden era of the “Big Top” in a craft beer medium.
Drawing on centuries-old ties to the Ringling Bros. circus, dating back to Smith’s great-grandmother Freida, LUKI burst onto the stage with a range of beers and a brightly decorated space that provided entertainment, wonder and community. And while Smith claims “it was always Monkey Business”, trying to pin down this monkey recently has proven a bit tricky.
Monkey Business India Pale Ale was the first beer operated by LUKI, and Smith’s team has brewed nine variations since, introducing new stunts each time. Reflecting on that legacy earlier this year, Smith felt it was time to pick a variation to give the moniker a final home.
So on February 4, LUKI launched Majestic Mary’s Magnificent Malt Roadshow single-barrel pilot brew system and poured flights of the three most popular monkey variants. Customers voted on the recipe that would become LUKI’s first staple beer, forever.
The ballot included Prime Monkey, the “OG” monkey; an amber IPA with a creamy caramel and roasted malt base, gregariously hopped with Cascade and Centennial hops. 6.2% ABV; Festive Monkey, a lighter rehash of Prime, incorporating an addition of dry hops, a lighter malt profile but more pronounced hops (a “ribless IPA” – neither New England nor West Coast IPA), 5, 5% ABV; and Mad Monkey Mojo, the latest iteration of Monkey, a West Coast-influenced IPA with crystal malt, expressing a menagerie of herbal, pine and citrus flavors from Cascade and Centennial hops. 5.7%ABV.
Unbeknownst to Smith and LUKI’s head brewer Michael Buchkoski, the Brewers Association dropped updated craft beer style guidelines on February 24. revisions and clarifications of categories and terms such as “juicy” or “hazy” and development of hybrid styles in the experimental IPA category.
“As the craft beer landscape continues to evolve, we want to make sure our beer style guidelines (…) are in sync with the innovation that continues to come to the fore,” said Chris Swersey, competition director of the Brewers Association.
The BA guidelines have long blended historical significance, traditional authenticity and popularity in the craft beer market, and put an unexpected twist on LUKI’s recent monkey-taming initiative.
While Swersey and the BA relied on drinkers, brewers and judges to compile a reliable living resource for the global craft brewing community, Smith instead sought out granular, grounded local commentary. Seen from both angles, the recent vote at LUKI has left Monkey Business with an existential crisis: what “IPA” breed is this?
Polls from February 4 revealed that LUKI fans preferred the OG “Amber” IPA: Prime Monkey (at 38%; Festive Monkey at 31%; and Mad Monkey Mojo at 30%) – a style that the BA does not has not recognized since the 1990s.
While reviewing the results, Smith was reminded that Prime Monkey’s color gamut is disabled for a modern IPA with a Standard Reference Method (SRM) color value of “12”, which by BA’s definition is an “India Pale Ale” (SRM 4-12); however, according to the standards of the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program), often reported in competitions, the beer is a category “21B Specialty IPA: Red IPA” (SRM 11-17).
Since BA competitions (e.g. the Great American Beer Festival) do not recognize red IPA, Smith could either submit the beer to the IPA SRM range limit for these events, risking the wrath of disgruntled judges at a “too dark” IPA. , or retool the beer more in the center of the style. Under this pressure, Monkey Business evolved post-2020, as Smith and Buchkoski put it “in style”. “(But) craft beer culture doesn’t necessarily run perfectly in line with a defined guideline; individuals have their own definitions and just want it to taste good,” Smith said.
Smith therefore decided to stop attending the “style” show, instead directing LUKI’s recent Hear No, See No, Speak No Evil voting event to identify customer preferences. “The customer will always trump judgments and strict guidelines,” he said. “And that’s something we needed to reset and convince ourselves.”
Going back to the recipe that launched the show brought Smith back to focusing on customer choice. And with his original draft beer and frothy gasps of satisfaction heard in the dining room, LUKI’s monkey is once again in center ring.
Even though style guidelines put Prime Monkey on the sidelines, sometimes the best branding shot is nonetheless right under your little red nose.