A Worrisome Beer?

A few weeks back, Goose Island sent me a bottle of their latest barrel-aged creation, Brasserie Blanc. Summer is a time of plenty for beer fans--it's the busiest season for sales, and consequently the busiest for releases. My staging area--beers on deck for drinking--has gotten a bit out of hand, so down the Blanc went into the cellar. Last week, under a lovely cobalt sky, I decided the moment was ripe to crack what appeared to be a rustic and saison-y ale, though the label calls it a "golden."

It's a remarkable beer. I mean really remarkable. I was hanging out with friends who were helping me work through some of that backlog, and it stopped two or three people in their tracks. Blanc is made with wheat, oats, and muscat grape juice, then aged 14 months on wild yeast on wine barrels. As I suspected, it had the depth and complexity of a saison, with just the perfect blend of wildness.

Americans have slowly, slowly been learning how to handle Brettanomyces. On the one hand, it can add deeply weird funkiness, a dusty-dryness, even a harsh, rindlike or leatherlike edge. But the wild yeast can also manufacture fruity esters, provide light acidity, and brighten a beer. In Brasserie Blanc, barrel-agers and blenders went for all that good stuff. It's rich with fruit, and the grape juice somehow survives intact on the palate. There are other fruity notes tucked in here and there, and it's all enlivened with a gentle touch of acidity and very little funkiness. (It's apparently not yet for sale--only 27 reviews on Untappd and not listed on BeerAdvocate, RateBeer, or the Goose Island website.)

Adjectives diminish the experience of the beer, though; it's real excellence is immediate and holistic: you instantly just think: "Holy crap, that's a great beer." Later you begin adding the adjectives, but they're really beside the point. It's hard to imagine how they could have improved it.

It's the kind of beer I would expect to come from Block 15 or Upright, but not often--even from those places, this would be an elite beer. As I was savoring the last few sips of Blanc, that recognition gave me pause. Nick Arzner and Alex Ganum have very rare gifts both in terms of aesthetics and composition. They can brew, age, and blend beers that deliver the gastronomic impact of a Van Gogh; you don't really have to be able to appreciate beer--you just know those are great. Not many people in the world can do what they do, which means their beers are consistently impressive. So perhaps AB InBev hired a Van Gogh and sent him to Chicago.

Or, perhaps this is the effect of a huge amount of money and a good system. Soon after ABI acquired Goose Island, it invested in a giant warehouse in Chicago to serve as the new barrel room (surely the giantest in the US, and maybe the biggest outside Roselare). It has two wings, one for standard beers, one for wild beers, and scores of projects are underway at any given time. Managing such a facility alone requires an impressive fleet of staff, including those responsible for conceiving projects, brewing the beer, wrangling the barrels, and blending the final product. (For a sense of their process, give a listen to a podcast we did with Mike Siegel, who recreated an English stock ale there.)

Even this doesn't capture the enormity of the barrel house.

There's really no way to mass-produce barrel aged beers. Even Bourbon County Stout, Goose Island's juggernaut, can't remotely meet the huge demand. But large-scale production does make it easier to consistently produce high-quality products. Barrel-aging is a numbers game; more beer on wood, more barrels to blend, more people to monitor and test the beer, more bad beer down the drain and not in the bottle, and you get better beer in the finished product. Goose Island is surely hiring the best people they can find to oversee these projects, but ultimately, the program is designed to run through a system, not the artistic competence of one brewer. Indeed, it can't depend on one brewer--it needs to outlast the contribution of any individual.

We tend to think of barrel-aging as the quintessential artisanal process, the activity furthest from push-button brewing. It evokes a strand of brewing that dates back to antiquity. Goose Island hasn't entirely escaped the vagaries that define the "artisanal" component in all that, but through brute force, they've put themselves in a position to greatly improve their batting average. I got a bottle of their first Cooper Project--another line in the barrel aging program--and it was excellent. Brasserie Blanc is a cut above that, a mark even Goose Island won't be able to hit every time. But they'll hit it more often than most breweries.

You may or may not regard this as dire news. For beer drinkers tired of spending twenty bucks on a supposedly special beer that is in fact a stew of off-flavors, having a reliable brand will be a relief. And Goose Island is making these beers the same way Upright and Block 15 are. But it's also slightly unsettling. Goose Island--actually AB InBev--is staking out both craft beer's bottom and top tier. Much as breweries like Deschutes and Sierra Nevada are going to find it tough to compete against the efficiencies of ABI on standard ales and lagers, breweries like Allagash and New Belgium may find it hard to compete against their 130,000-square-foot barrel house, too.

The beer world has become a tricky, albeit tastier, place. I guess we'll have to wait and see where it all ends up.