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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

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."


  1. I seem to recall from Spinal Tap that if an amp can be turned up to 11, it's better than one that only goes to 10. So it must follow that a beer that presents as an 11 is better, or at least more distinguished, than one that only goes to 10. Am I wrong?

    These races in the direction of flavors that shock the taste buds are imbedded in the American beer geek experience of late. There's no room for subtlety...that's soo Euro. I'm not sure this is necessary a good thing, but it does open up a lot of avenues for brewers. And bold beers. When the takeover happened, some said AB was going to give Goose Island a lot of creative space. I guess they were right.

  2. While I won't deny the American desire for intensity, I think it's a bit unfair to say American beer geeks don't value harmony and balance either. For example, you mention 3F Oude Geuze, a beer I reliably saw on shelves in 2010 (and maybe 2011), but is nonexistent today due to high demand by American beer geeks (and don't get me started on Cantillon). Tilquin has become a go-to for folks who can't get 3F or Cantillon, but now that's starting to thin out a bit as well. Again, not that Americans don't value the volume 11 wild ales, just that they seem to also value the balanced stuff.

  3. Only time is going to tell the tale of whether GI remains a creative, important brewery but I think that the departure of Greg Hall, arguably the soul of what was right about Goose, isn't going to help them stay credible, and, all other aspects of this aside, IF Goose Island does stay excellent, what AB/InBev is looking to get out of it is NOT money. They make zillions now. What they want is Cred; cachet as a craft brewer and that is simply not gonna happen, no way, no how. This is typical AB thinking and is even more entrenched in the mind-set of yahoos like Brito. They see things like reputation and accomplishment and excellence as commodities, something that, if you can't manage to earn it, you can simply purchase. Whatever success abd quality standard GI retains/gains in the future, it's never gonna give AB/InBev what they so desperately want: a claim to the craft beer culture. They're the Great Satan and will always be the enemy of what craft beer is all about. It's hard to believe that a company with the resources of these guys can't just set up a small-production brewery, staff it with people from outside their corporate culture, and just make credible beers. But every one of their attempts at doing ti have flopped. The only reason Shock Top is still around and anywhere comparable to the Blue Moon it so lamely copies is AB's omnipresence in sports stadiums and arenas, where you ain't finding Blue Moon with a pack of bloodhounds. I absolutely DO blame John Hall for holding his legacy so cheaply that he consented to sell out to the Belgian/Brazilian Clown Posse. AB can buy whatever they like and you can review them however you want. I did it, too, but I sure as hell will NEVER do it without drawing the distinction between Goose and their corporate masters:

  4. Mark,

    I agree that a lot of folks are drawn by subtlety (though not as many as are drawn by hops). But lambics aren't a good metric. Collectively they produce something like 25,000 barrels and distribute across Europe and North America. That we're only now seeing them slide into rarity (and I can always get a bottle of Boon Mariage Parfait for less than a tenner) shows how few people really drink them.

    Steve: I disagree with much you say, but as a measure of full disclosure I'll acknowledge that I know Brett Porter, the new post-Hall head brewer there. He's an old Oregon guy and we email infrequently. I'd put his resume up against Greg Hall's in a heartbeat. Goose Island was respected, but was never regarded as one of the holy breweries by the beer geek set. Brett Porter is well positioned to take Goose Island wherever they want it to go, beerwise.

  5. Jeff,

    I'd argue that the Vintage series (aka the sours and the bourbon county line) were always well regarded before and after the sale by beer geeks. It's only their every day line up that no one cared about. Given that most of the latter is now being farmed out to other AB breweries, I don't see that changing.

  6. You know, it always makes me laugh, these people who talk about AB-InBev being the devil. How many of these individuals use the same narrow lens in other consumer purchasing decisions? I can't tell you how many beer geeks I know that will spew vitriol about corporate beer, then eat at McDonalds....

  7. "...gueuzes (objectively the finest style on earth) "

    Says who? Did you maybe mean subjectively?

  8. I like the phrasing "Intensity is a marker of authenticity" and I hope more beer bloggers and beer geeks will factor that into their writing and reviews in the future because it is a filter that needs to applied more frequently than it is currently.

  9. Are these beer brettanomyces based, or acidic? If they are as acidic as you make it sound, it's not brettanomyces, but lactic acid or even vinegar. Which is definitely a fault in many American sour ales. And nothing like a 3 Fonteinen. Other than that, good to hear that GI are still uncompromising. Hopefully also with their good beers :)

  10. Great article! I have tried these Goose Island beers, and, while I didn't make the AB connection at the time, I thought they were really well done. I didn't even know AB bought Goose Island, so this article was insightful for me.

    Americans (and I am one) do tend to love big, bolder flavors in just about everything. That's a big part of what has made craft beer do so well in America, and it only follows suit that some brewer somewhere wants to always take things to a new level or highlight a new direction. It used to be the Double IPA and the Imperial Stout, and now it is a swath of wild and sour ales that are drawing attention over the past few years. I personally think this is all a great thing for beer in general, and I also think that there is no better distinction than another (i.e. bigger and bolder is not better than subtle just as subtle is not better than bigger and bolder... it's all personal preference). I like both approaches in a beer.