The Goose Island Challenge

One of the most interesting recent developments in beer was AB InBev's 2011 acquisition of Goose Island.  Until then, multinational beer companies had been trying to penetrate the craft segment with stealth labels like Shock Top and Blue Moon.  These beers were mainstreamed to appeal to the fat center of the American palate, and have long been drummed out of the "craft beer" fraternity for their middlebrow flavors and disreputable, hidden parentage.  For any number of reasons--the beer itself, the subterfuge, the stain of ownership--these beers could be distinguished from "real" craft beer.  (Full disclosure: I think Blue Moon is a respectable witbier and while it is certainly doesn't have the most character, I've had many worse examples by "craft breweries.")

When Bud bought Goose, though, it turned the arguments sideways.  Not only was Goose Island one of the more respected Midwestern craft breweries, but AB InBev invested heavily to allow the brewery to, for example, build the largest barrel-aging program in the US.  It appeared that, contra expectations, Goose Island was not going to build its reputation on a national campaign for 312 Wheat, but by competing head-to-head with the most lauded of the beer geek breweries.  The Shock Top arguments wouldn't work against Goose Island, so the only thing left was wondering whether St. Louis would be exerting subtle efforts to dumb down the beers (a charge I have heard many times since 2011).

A couple months ago, Goose Island sent me four of their barrel-aged beers (Halia, Juliet, Gillian, and Lolita), and it was with this critique in mind that I sipped them.  They run a similar continuum, all brett-aged in wine barrels with fruit additions, brewed in a range from 7.5% to 9.5%.  The brewery packages them in heavy, capped champagne bottles.  It's an extension of the Belgian line that began with Sofie and now runs to ten beers.  Most of them are barrel aged with wild yeast.  So: 1) are they good, and 2) are they dumbed-down?

Let's take the second question first.  It's not inconceivable that a large brewery would try to tempt the beer geek with a boozy specialty beer--Blue Moon has already done it.  They have a Vintage Ale Collection that is a pretty close analogue to the Goose Island range--Belgiany, strong, aimed at the upscale market.  The beer geeks give it a "meh," and not because it's Blue Moon.  These are beers aimed squarely at the Blue Moon drinker--not the Consecration market.  Beers like Proximity are gentle, made with nothing wild, and light-bodied--easy-drinking big beers. 

Goose Island's beers are nothing of the sort.  They are big and aggressive.  Of the four, three had enough brettanomyces to wake the dead.  The fourth, Lolita, was plenty tart, but had quite a bit of bright raspberry flavor and residual sweetness.  They are perfectly typical of what I don't like about American wild ales (except Lolita, which I enjoyed).  Wild ales have followed hoppy ales into the realm of punishing.  Rather than use wild yeasts to accentuate fruity flavors and add a bit of tartness, breweries like to amp up the acid and dryness to lacerating levels.  Part of this is the way wild yeasts behave in oxygen-porous wine barrels, but part of it is the American preference for volumes that go to eleven.  In a fist fight, Juliet could beat the hell out of most challengers.  The beer geeks agree, awarding these high scores on BeerAdvocate: Halia, Lolita, and Gillian 92/100 and Juliet 94.

The first question is a lot harder.  There was a moment when I was sitting in Drie Fonteinen in 2011 sipping an Oude Geuze (the one at right, in fact) when I had an epiphany.  I had been in Brussels for 24 hours and I'd sampled gueuzes (objectively the finest style on earth) from four breweries.  It wasn't that they were new to me, but the force of having them all in such a such a short period: I realized that while they had very strong flavors--each different--they were harmonious.  There was nothing searing about them.  The brett in these beers was balanced by the complex esters and acids developed over years of barrel aging.  Harmony and balance, far more than intensity, is what I value.

But that's not what the American beer geek values.  Intensity is a marker of authenticity in the US.  Intensity is a sensory marker for the ("off-center") irreverence only small, independent breweries can muster.  What fascinates and delights me is that Goose Island has decided to take this marker as a north star.  An arm of Anheuser-Busch Inbev is seeking to out-irreverent the little guys, at least in the glass.  In business, and especially in the self-congratulatory Silicon Valley, "disruptive technologies" are those which are designed to topple the market dominance of an established, outdated tech.  One story some craft brewers tell is that they are insouciantly  "disrupting" the old norms of the beer world.  Their maverick ways--you know, like selling hoppy IPAs--will radically change the beer world forever. 

But the truth is that the most disruptive brewery in America right now is Goose Island. 

Note: post edited lightly for clarity.  I don't know why I don't do that before I hit "post."