Goose Island is, in craft brewing terms, an old-timer. Good beer arrived later to the Midwest, so when Goose Island set up shop in Chicago in 1988, it was a pioneer. Despite its early founding, it was hampered by Midwest palates that still considered Grain Belt a decent beer. I was dimly aware of it when I arrived in Wisconsin a few years later, but the Badger state breweries were already leading the way (New Glarus and Sprecher were standouts). A friend of mine referred to Goose Island's beer as "swamp water."
Things have changed. Chicago's beer palate has grown up, and Goose Island has become a brewery associated--at least nationally--with its Belgian and barrel-aged offerings. Bourbon County Stout has been available on the West Coast for awhile, and now Goose Island is rolling out their Belgian line. This is an interesting moment in the development of craft beer. For years breweries just toyed with Belgian styles, but now a few are actively seeking a market for them--in front of demand, as far as I can tell. Consumers still seem enamored of big, burly American ales (hoppy or black and barrel aged); Belgian styles still command only a niche audience. Yet with this expansion of their Belgians, Goose Island is gambling that the niche will grow and that they'll be first in line. A trend to watch.
First up is Matilda, which the brewery was kind enough to send my way.
Inspired by Orval
Although the brewery calls it a "Belgian style pale ale," Orval is the inspiration for Matilda. If you recall, a legend animates the Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval. The story holds that a young countess was sitting beside a spring near where the monastery is located. Her wedding ring fell off; distraught, she prayed until a trout appeared, ring in mouth. The countess' name? Matilda.
If the monastery's name is an homage to this legend, then Goose Island's Matilda is an homage to Orval. Their version, like Orval's, is made with pale and caramel malts, is both fairly hoppy (32 IBU) and similarly-hopped (both use Styrian Goldings, Goose Island substituting Saaz for Hersbrucker), and both use sugar to enhance the alcohol without adding body. Orval, famously, employs multiple yeast strains--a regular ale yeast in primary fermentation, and then a blend of yeasts for secondary that includes brettanomyces. And apparently, so does Matilda. Or did, anyway--more on that presently. Owing to the brett, Orval has variable strength depending on age--6-7%. Matilda is 7%.
As you can see from the photo, Matilda approximates Orval in color as well--though it's less orange and more copper. The head on my pour wasn't tall and fluffy like this, though--I got just a skiff. The nose is alcoholic and a touch phenolic, with a slight clove note and just a (pleasant) hint of sulfur. It is much as one would expect from a fortified Belgian.
I was surprised at how thin the body was. The sweetish sugar-alcohol note is contrasted nicely by a very dry finish. There's a bit of spice on the palate, but not a lot. With beers like this, I hope for some layered complexity, but Matilda is straightforward: gentle, alcoholic, dry.
All of this comes with a caveat. If the brewery still uses brettanomcyes, it hasn't had a chance to express itself in this young 2010 vintage. I found absolutely no evidence in my bottle. This may well be intentional: young Orval is principally hoppy and wet; but once the brett starts to munch sugars in the bottle, it matures until it is bone dry, lemony, austere. Perhaps Matilda is designed to change with age, too.
Because Matilda is inspired by and apparently modeled on Orval, it's impossible not to compare the two, and this is not to Goose Island's advantage. Orval is easily one of the best beers in the world (I'd put it in the top five). Matilda, while pleasant and enjoyable, is not particularly distinctive. It seems a bit like what it is--an early example of a transplanted style being brewed in a new country. A respectable outing, but not a home run.
Malts: Pale, caramel
Hops: Styrian Goldings, Saaz
Availability: Newly available on the West Coast. 12-ounce 4-pack $11-14.
I don't actually get (or solicit) much in the way of promotional samples. I know from reading Jon's blog that breweries regularly include wowza packaging when they send these to reviewers. Cardboad boxes, okay. Even wooden boxes, not surprisng. But check out Goose Island's packaging. It's a wooden box, but the wood is cut thin and rolled like parchment, sealed with a leather strap. Two photos below try to capture it. Packaging is usually meant to send certain messages about brand or product, but damned if I know what to make of this.