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Goose Island and the Return to Chicago

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I have a lot of fond memories of Chicago.

Longtime readers may remember that I was there back in 2012, where I went to C2E2 with my partner at the time, hung out with a few of my friends (some from Chicago, others from NYC), and tried a LOT of fantastic beers. 3 Floyd’s Arctic Panzer Wolf, the many amazing selections Revolution Brewing had and still has, and, of course, Goose Island beers. In fact, Matilda was the very first beer I had in Chicago, and was the first beer with Brettanomyces in it that I had. While it wasn’t the best Goose Island beer of the trip (That title goes to the FANTASTIC bottle of Bourbon County Bramble Rye I had), it still has a special place in my heart. Hell, I still think I have one of the bottles from that trip stashed away in the cellar.

IMG_20151113_144843-01What I didn’t quite realize at the time was that there was a very heated debate going on in the beer circles. In 2011 Goose Island announced that they would be selling their stake of the brewery to Anheuser-Busch InBev, with the remaining shares also being sold to AB InBev. Social media went, as it always does with news like this, absolutely nuts. A year after the announcement when things were starting to roll out, the web was filled with conspiracy theories and scenarios of the quality of beer taking a severe nosedive. Three years later, Goose Island has made more of a push in to the Canadian market, with the latest offering, Goose IPA, being a favourite among many.

So when Goose Island invited me on trip to Chicago in September to tour their facilities and check out the much anticipated 312 Block Party, I jumped at the chance for a few reasons. Firstly, I’ve heard a lot about the block party. My local friend from Chicago, Corben, said a lot of good things about it, as well as many beer nerd friends. Secondly, I wanted to try some of the more different offerings from the brewery. So far we only have Matilda, Sophie, Pepe Nero, Honkers, and Goose IPA. All staples and mainstays. I wanted some one-offs. And finally, I wanted to see the differences found four years after a small brewery has been bought by one of the big guys.

And folks, some of you might not like hearing this, others, like me, might have known this for years, but…

They’re doing really good work in the name of better beer and the buyout has done little more than given them the tools to play around more and bring forth offerings typically found in a few bars in a single city to places all over the country. Aside from the very normal problem all breweries regardless of size have in terms of some batches not doing as well as others, there has been very little drop in terms of quality (frankly there’s been a rise) and the rate of consistency of said quality is outstanding. 

IMG_20151113_143627With no other beer is this more true than with Bourbon County Stout. Originally served as a special milestone “batch 1000” beer at their Clybourne brewpub in 1992, the beer now has a cult following among beer nerds. The Bourbon County off-shoots have an arguably even more rabid following, with crowds at the 312 Block Party running as fast as they could in the rain to get in line for a small sample of the selected limited release batches. And to be honest, after tasting the Proprietor’s Bourbon County at the event, with the gorgeous notes of Cassia and coconut water and a slightly warming creamy texture…hell, I’d run through a fire for that beer. Several fires, even.

As far as what’s changed at Goose Island since I was last there, it seems to be one of those “good kinds of problems” that I’ve been seeing a lot with breweries who are either bought or are just naturally growing. Similar to the Sam Adams brewery in Boston, Goose Island’s Fulton brewery, where the beers were mostly made, seems to be slowly transforming in to an art space for beer, allowing brewers to experiment with ideas on new brews that range from alteration on classic styles, to . The other part of the brewery is devoted to one of their best sellers, Matilda. The tanks holding Matilda are freakin’ huge, with several vertical tanks on the roof being maintained temperature-wise because head brewer Jared Jankowski and his team found that Matilda tastes better when it’s brewed in the winter.

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The real big change though, and by far one of the most impressive, is Goose Island’s Barrel House. A 133,000 square foot facility filled with full barrels in numbers so large I don’t honestly think I can accurately guess and they’re already talking about expanding the damned thing. The facility is filled with beer aging in pretty much all types of barrels you can think of (different bourbons, different wines, different tequilas…), all in varying degrees of time length and temperature. It’s a monstrous facility that really brings home the primary drive of Goose Island’s success: their ability to make rare beers combined with the actual talent it takes to make them well.

So as I’m standing in the barrel house sipping on a 2013 Gillian, a mindblowing farmhouse ale with strawberry notes and a hint of wildflowers and honey with a delicate dry finish, a world class beer to be sure…I can’t help but think “why would I ever be against a brewery, or a company that purchases a brewery, that wants to make this facility and beers like this a reality?”

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And that’s where, in the name of good beer, I have to side with Goose Island. I understand that a lot of people hate big breweries and feel that they take jobs and revenue away from smaller breweries, but this trip gave me the impression that Goose Island isn’t trying to do that as much as people suspect. While they have many quality beers as part of their regular rotation (Again, my love for Goose IPA is deep) and those are found around more and more, it’s the rare beers like Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout or the 2013 Gillian, that are very clearly the focus and frankly, there are very few breweries that are making rare beers like they are on that large of a scale. Regular beers get lost in the shuffle and there’s a lot of concern about oversaturation. Hell, go in to any liquor store (Like Chicago’s Binny’s) to see the reality of that. White Whale Beers however, the kind of beers the people line up for 5+ hours for or run at breakneck speeds through the rain for a SAMPLE…those are growing, but are less abundant. And it’s there that I think Goose Island is most comfortable.

IMG_20151113_142904The 312 Block Party was a testament to that final point, I feel. While the first night was rainy, the second night had clearer weather and was just jam-packed with folks enjoying themselves and clamouring for the beers on offer. Many didn’t care about the politics of the brewery, they were there for several reasons. The rare beers, the seasonal beers and collaborations (including the incredible Coffee Ale, brewed with Intelligentsia Coffee beans), the music, and because the block party has quite simply embedded itself in to the city. Of course there are many breweries within the city, and when you think of Chicago several come up, but one of them certainly is Goose Island and I know very few locals who aren’t excited when the Block Party comes around each year.

I’m really glad I went on this trip. Aside from getting to see my friend Corben, getting introduced to some fabulous places like the Eleven City Diner and the delightful dive the Ten Cat Tavern, and getting some serious shopping in at The Spice House (my favourite spice shop ever), it was good to see the status of a brewery that I initially had fond memories of and to see that their quality hasn’t dropped over time, but that they have been putting more focus in to higher quality beers and embracing the concept of rarity.

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The Long War: Big vs. Small Beer

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I think for about as long as I’ve been writing on this site, and definitely many years longer than that, there’s always been this epic war going on between smaller breweries and the big breweries. I know I definitely took part in fighting for the side of Small Craft Beer, especially when the lines were divided so distinctly between “unique, flavourful beers” and for the most part “tinted water painted up to look sexy”. It was, and still is, a thrill to see small businesses pull one over on the big corporations. It’s a sign that quality DOES matter to consumers and that each battle won, be it in the form of a growing selection at bars or stores, or in the rise of beer events, the small will always win. It’s always an aspiration and a joy to feel like Anya Major in the 1984 Apple commercial, throwing a sledgehammer at the screen broadcasting Big Brother’s word and showing the drones of people that there are other options out there and they can think for themselves.

The problem is, though, that at some point it became a war over ideals than actual quality of the product. This wasn’t helped by the fact that no one really managed to get a firm definition of exactly what “Craft Beer” is. The Brewer’s Association have one, but considering they’ve changed it so they can keep certain famed breweries under the “craft” label, it’s safe to say that their definition isn’t too great. With that, everyone has a personal ideal of what “Craft” represents. I often joke by saying that Craft Beer is the sun rising in Spring and is the warmth you feel when a loved one holds your hand. Frankly, I feel that “Craft Beer” should either be trademarked (similar to “Trappist Beer”), or left be. The definition is so broad.

workersAdditionally, the distinct line between flavours blurred as more and more the big brewing companies were purchasing smaller ones and had them continue to make the beers that made them famous, only with MUCH bigger distribution and budget behind it. Similar to when a favourite indie band signs with a big label, many fans forget that there is a business side to every art and that “selling out” is very different from “changing who signs the cheques”. Boycotts and expressions of outrage over a betrayal usually follow the news of a smaller brewery getting bought. It’s weird to see that, even though smaller breweries have won so much, many of its fans still fight as if they have everything to lose, as if everything they’ve fought for could all slip away without a moment’s notice and we’d immediately go back to The Way Things Were. For many, when we think of small breweries we think of the lone brewer skillfully working on their craft, but when we think of big breweries or breweries owned by a bigger one, our mind leaves the brewing floor and focuses on people in suits having a meeting about marketing strategies. And that IS terrifying. Our minds go back to the quality distinction and there’s this small, gripping fear that anyone picked up by a company that historically was on the wrong side of that distinction will be lost to us, drowned in watered-down piss, and emerge as one of the nameless machines that churns out mediocre brews.

Not to suggest that big brewing is blameless and doesn’t warrant that distrust. Like how Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty is run by the same folks that sign off on AXE Body Spray ads with bikini-clad women, it’s hard to trust a company that is so big that they have sections that cater to things you’re both for and against. I love sitting down at a patio with a nicely made beer, but I hate being at an event where nightclub partiers scream and fall down with a beer-case cardboard hat on their heads. And yet big breweries are in this position where they are able to comfortably sell to both sides of that market. Along with that and actively engaging in offence and deceit tactics, as a consumer I totally get how someone could look at that and not want to support it.

For myself and many others, there’s been a few things we’ve had to do. Firstly is to acknowledge that everyone has different tastes (duh). Secondly is to put the politics aside and see how the beers stand up along with the others we’ve enjoyed. While Miller Light, Coors, Bud, and Molson Canadian will always be passed on for me, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout and IPA, Rickard’s Lederhosen Oktoberfest, and Pilsner Urquell will always be considered damn good beer. Just like a beer being “craft” doesn’t mean it’s a good beer, the same goes the other way for big beer. It’s not all yellow water with a flavour note of “cold”.

But hey, you’re all adults capable of making informed choices. I certainly don’t want you to choose sides, though as a personal rule that doubles as a compromise, I’m more prone to give local smaller breweries my money and attention while knowing that if I find myself in a spot, a good quality big beer is handy if I need it and they can work great as “old reliables”. From a variety within the brewery perspective, I’ll get some amazing limited one-offs from local breweries. Big breweries? Not as much.

There are many wars being fought in regards to beer. But I do feel that with the way things have been going, with big brewing companies courting smaller breweries and trying their best to embrace some of the adventurous spirit in those brewers, small beer has won the war on flavour. How that victory will continue to take shape is something we’ll discover as time goes on.

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Lock it in the Basement: Aging Beers

Aging: It’s not just for wines, whiskeys and people who aren’t me.

So I’ve decided to take the next step in my beer appreciation learnings and start doing what I’ve wanted to do ever since I tried some beer that had undergone this process. I’m going to start aging beer. I think my first instance in trying some aged beer was at Dogfish Head’s brewpub, where I had a World Wide Stout that had been aged for one year and…dear LORD, it was amazing. Ever since then I’ve been thinking about it. Last week, when Amsterdam Brewery released Tempest Imperial Stout (a delicious one-off originally brewed last year) I decided to buy a few to be the first test subjects in my beer cellar. Lucky thing I got them too, as all 1400 bottles produced sold out within two days. Also, thank heavens, I was able to get the last Muskoka “Winter Beard” Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout from Muskoka Brewery’s retail store.

But how the hell do I get to aging these things? Well, I’m still reading on the subject, but here’s what I’ve learned so far…

–       The beers have to be stored at a cool 10-20°c in a dark, semi-dry room. A basement, garage or cave will do in a pinch. A closet for apartment dwellers also works.

–       The beers have to be bottle-conditioned, which is to say that there are active yeasts in the bottles allowing the beer to further ferment.

–       Beers heavy in malts like Stouts, Porters, Barley Wines and Belgian Ales are best for aging for long periods of time. This makes sense, since the more malts (sugars) the more of a meal the yeasts have which will allow them to do their thing (eat sugar, poop alcohol).

–       Hoppy beers aren’t that great for aging over long periods of time, as the hops break down after a while and create a kind of skunky, dreadful drink.

–       The higher the alcohol content, the more benefits the beer will have to being aged. The agreed upon rule seems to be “8% ABV or higher”, although many Beglian beers with low ABV percentages have also benefited greatly from aging.

–       If the beer contains Brettanomyces, a Belgian yeast that is usually added near bottling time, you’re able to age it. This yeast does a lot in a few months or years (see Goose Island’s Matilda, which can be aged for five years). Having this yeast isn’t needed, this is just a “if you see a beer with this in it, go for it” kind of tip.

–       While there is some argument on this, it is advised to always store the beer in the upright position rather than on its side. The debate is mainly over how to store beer that has been corked, as laying it on the side will prevent the cork from drying out. Although a way around THAT can be to dip the top of the bottle with wax. You know what, I’ll just leave it to one’s discretion.

The advantage of aging beers? Well, there are certain strong flavours in beers that mellow out over time and bring a rise to flavours you may not have noticed before. In Imperial Stouts, for instance, the alcohol bite goes down along with the heavy coffee overtones and presents a sweeter, almost creamier beer. So it highlights complexities to a beer that you didn’t know were there. That’s a good enough reason for me, at any rate.

Beers can be aged for years and years too. I’ve heard plenty of stories of people opening a bottle of Chimay from 1986  and even a beer that was discovered to have been stored since 1869! Madness? Probably. Worth it? Most definitely.

You can also age beer in things like Oak whiskey barrels to add a wonderful flavour and depth to the beers, but since I’m not Mme. Moneybucks McGee (Of the Southampton McGees), I’m going to discuss bottle aging for now.

Right, so now on to my little project.

It was easy to pick the location (the basement of my cottage in Muskoka). It’s dark, it’s cold and it’s dry, but not dry enough to give me a nosebleed or chapped lips. It also has shelf space, so if a flood happens down there (Give me a break, it IS a cottage. It happens) then I have no fear of water touching my precious bottles. I also have something covering it, so no burglers will sneak in to the house in the middle of the night and find it.

It’s important to label what year your beers are from (see above picture) so you’ll remember. And don’t think you will, because unless you’re some kind of savant or only aging one beer you’ll have at least a bit of difficulty remembering. Just do it that way. To add a fun bit of nostalgia to it, I may also write down a few details of how my life is currently going, so I can look back on it. But hey, do what you want.

So now it’s set up in complete, cold darkness and is FAR AWAY from me. I’ll admit, one of my biggest concerns is the will power it takes to just WAIT. Because now I have some fantastic beers in that room and what’s the harm in just having one? See, this is why I chose the cottage. I go up there about 4-5 times a year now, so the chance of me getting to it is pretty minimal. My other biggest concern is how the room will be in the winter time. If it ends up being too cold, I may have to move them. But I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, eh?

So here’s the score with the beers I have on your right. I have three bottles of this year’s Tempest Imperial Stout, which according to the brewer, can be aged for up to three years. One will be aged for one year, another for two and the final for a third year. The Tempest wrapped in a white top has already been aged for a year and a half (came with a six pack of the beer as a gift) and will be brewed for an additional year and a half. If more Temptests come out every year, I’ll be buying some to age. The Muskoka Winter Beard will be aged for a year. There is also a plan to age some Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, Goose Island Matilda and Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. We’ll see how those go. Regardless I am going to try to have at least three beers in there at any given time for several years.

And that’s that. If any of you readers have suggestions for beers to age, I’d sure appreciate it! If I can get a hold of it, I’ll try!

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Chicago: One Hell of a Town

I have returned alive and well from the Windy City! C2E2 was a blast, seeing friends from both Chicago and all over the country was a thrill and walking all over that city was just perfect.

But you’re reading a beer blog. You don’t want to hear about a comic convention and walking around Lincoln Park with my boyfriend. You want to hear about the beer. And so I’ll talk about that.

What a freakin’ town.

Didn’t quite know what to think about it before I went. I kept hearing things like “the Chicago beer scene is just starting to come alive” but I think that’s a lot of hooey. It might be exploding a bit more, but this struck me as a town that’s been used to having craft beer in their lives for a while. Even in the crappiest of bars there was at least a few Belgian styles and a decent IPA.

But jeez, the fantastic beers. And the breweries in and around Chicago! The heavy metal inspired 3 Floyds Arctic Panzer, Revolution Brewing’s Working Woman Brown Ale (which will be part of my fond memories for a very long time) and of course the many amazing beers from Goose Island, which has been operating in Chicago for nearly 25 years and produced interesting drinks like Pepe Nero, made with Peppercorns and Bramble Rye Bourban County, the fantastic imperial stout with the unmistakeable and amazing taste of raspberries and blackberries (pictured above)? Yum. But my heart will always go to my first Goose Island beer, Matilda, a Belgian-style made with a special yeast strain that allows it to be aged for up to five years (if you can wait that long).

And of course, the places and the people are always going to be a factor. We had the pleasure of joining the company with Corben, our Man in Chicago, along with some friends from New York. We went to a FANTASTIC pub with a diverse beer menu called the Map Room where the owner gave me a free pint of Harviestoun Old Engine Oil (on CASK!) for free as a welcome to Chicago and a thank you for coming here (thanks for the suggestion again, Sam from Sawdust City Brewery!). It was there too that I think I fell in love with a little beer called Dragon’s Milk, by New Holland Brewing Company in Michigan. An incredible imperial stout with hints of oak, caramel and vanilla. This definitely became the favourite for me, and I had a few. Later we went to the Bad Apple, a place with a huge beer list and probably one of the best burgers I’ve eaten (and deep fried…cheese curds. Which were surprisingly delicious). I had an “El Chupacabra” burger, which apparently contained goat bits and a Dogfish Head Noble Rot, which was probably the closest to wine a beer has reached for me. Delicious.

Illustrator and comic creator Sarah Becan met up with us and we went to the AMAZING brewpub put on by Revolution Brewing, where I fell in love with the Working Woman Brown Ale. Seriously, please send me some of that stuff. Just perfectly balanced between the hops and malts making for one rough and yet comforting drink. Plus if you’re a woman you feel like a bit of a badass drinking it (Just sayin’).

And on our final night in Chicago Corben took us to Bangers & Lace and we had an amazing time! The guys working the bar were AMAZING and passionate about beer and we found a lot of beers we had put on a list of “beers we want but will most likely never drink”.

Like Dogfish Head’s Bitches Brew. Seen on the first episode of Brew Masters and made specially for the rerelease of the famous Miles Davis album, I never thought I would have this fusion beer of an imperial stout combined with a beer made with honey and gesho. But boy, I had it and…MAN. Having Bitches Brew on my iPod while having my first few sips really completed my experience.

And Hitachino‘s 3 Days Beer from Japan, with THIS amazing story behind it:

“March 11, 2011 14:46, a huge earthquake struck Japan and with it our brewery. Some parts of the brewery house were damaged and the brewing tanks were left leaning at an angle. Completion of the typical mashing period had to be extended to three days until electricity to the brewery was restored. Natural fermentation had already started in the mash tank during these three days with lactic acid culture in our brewery. This “3 DAYS” beer is limited to only 8,000 bottles.”

8,000 bottles. And I was lucky enough to have one. Delicious. Strong taste of Pears which made it very refreshing.

But CHICAGO. Jeez. I can’t tell you just how much I loved that city. To all the people who led us around and gave good company, Melissa, Dowell, Nick, Amy, Sarah Becan, Mike Rooth and ESPECIALLY the amazing Corben, THANK YOU SO MUCH for showing this weird but enthusiastic Canadian gal a good time on her first visit to Chicago.

And now to figure out when I’m going back.

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The Windy City

The next couple of days will be taking up some time for me as I wrap up my affairs at work and start packing for Chicago. I’ll be attending C2E2 and taking a few days extra on a much-needed vacation with the fella. We’re both REALLY looking forward to trying some of the local beers there. Goose Island, Metropolitan Brewing and Revolution Brewing to name a few. And credit where credit is due, the fella along with a lot of local friends are helping us find stuff along with the excellent beer site Chitown on Tap.

I’m also imagining that it will be every bit like The Untouchables. I sure hope I can get myself a good ‘ol Chicago Typewriter to just shoot bullets in the air with.

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