Friday, September 21, 2012

"Sorry Goose, but it's time to buzz a tower."

The battle between "mainstream" and "craft/micro" brewing has gone beyond the simple us vs. them dichotomy, and has recently moved into the tricky and controversial area of "make them become us."  When smaller breweries grow beyond the confines of their local markets and achieve a larger share of the industry, the bigger players in the game will begin to take notice.  As we have seen before, there are many strategies that the megabreweries can use in order to maintain their hegemonic dominance over the market, and they have the considerable resources to do this.  These can include the controlling of retail space to the exclusion of craft products (why, for example, does Bud Light need a whole facing to itself, while the craft beers are usually crammed into one smaller out of the way location?), smothering the market with pervasive advertizing and exclusive tap arrangements for bars/events, and the always unfortunate and expensive tactic of the lawsuit, which has been the particular bane of Sam Calaglione's Dogfish Head.  These tactics suggest an antagonistic relationship between the brewing players, which certainly exists to some degree; however, one would be mistaken to suggest that the goal of these tactics is the total elimination of exciting and flavorful beer from our society.  Despite my opinions of them, I must  say that the megabreweries are not stupid, nor are they oblivious to the prevailing trends in the beer world.  As we have seen in the recent election kerfuffles with Romney and Obama, both political parties know that there are some votes that they simply cannot win, and so their camps simply do not bother to court these unwinnable demographics.  The same is true with the world of beer: no matter how much the world tries to jam Bud Light and Stella Artois down our gullets, a sizable minority of us will always want something more.  Therefore, the more astute of the megabrewing companies have adopted a "if we can't beat 'em, join 'em" policy with regards to their more significant competitors.   Actually, "if they are a threat, buy them!" would be more appropriate, as over the past few years many a larger craft brewery has been purchased by a larger consortium - Creemore by Molson-Coors, Unibroue by Sapporo, etc. - so that the larger consortium can enjoy a piece of the market that they otherwise would never have been able to sway with their existing products (a few of the bigger breweries - Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada - have maintained their independence, however, and still maintain a massive distribution network).   There are of course positives and negatives for both parties with regards to these sales, and because the terms of each sale present different possible outcomes for each situation, I can't really say whether or not it is a good thing for the craft beer world.  It is simply a reality we have to work with.

Goose Island of Chicago is one such brewery whose status in the Midwest has been so strong that it has been able to distribute its products across the country, with only a few exceptions.  This process has been accelerated by the brewery's takeover by Anheuser-Busch in 2011.  Many more pubs with a craft beer selection will now sport more than a few of those iconic Goose Island goose head taps for their standard offerings than ever before - one hopes.  While this takeover will mean the departure of former brewmaster Greg Hall, it has not meant that the more esoteric and flavorful brews will necessarily see a decline in their production.  Over the years, their seasonal releases (Bourbon County Stout and their Christmas Ale) have achieved legendary status among craft beer circles, with releases of the former - lovingly abbreviated "BCS" - generating extremely high demand.   Hopefully their production will continue, and will not be affected by the takeover.
Coach K is not looking pleased. 

I've been to Goose Island's brewpub in Wrigleyville a few years back, but at the time I can't say I was really a big enough craft beer fan to have appreciated the significance of where I was, so I didn't really get much out of it.  The lager that we drank was good, as I recall.  But what I remember most vividly about the experience was not the beer itself, but rather the fact every single one of the pub's many televisions was turned to a different March Madness game (it was the weekend of the first round), and each TV had a good dozen people glued to the action.  I've never seen anything like it; Americans are truly obsessed with college basketball.  Hopefully I'll be able to revisit the pub someday armed with my current knowledge of the brewery and its offerings, and will generate new, beer-related memories.

Here's a quick look at two of Goose Island's brews I've had the pleasure of encountering recently - hopefully I will be able to add to this list in the near future!

Beer: Honker's Ale
Type: English Bitter
ABV: 4.3%

Poured into a nonic pint glass.  Classic bitter appearance for this brew: caramel-copper in colour, slight haze, thin but sturdy head, with some lacing.

Nose is caramel, malt, toffee, bread, earthy hops, a touch of grain and roasted bitterness, as well as some fruit (peach). 

Bready, with a touch of fruit, earthy hops and caramel sweetness.  Decent, highly drinkable bitter with enough flavor to keep me interested and a low enough ABV to guarantee some serious session drinking.    

A bit thin-bodied, but decent carbonation and some creaminess.

Would be really nice to have this on draught at some point.  This beer is downright decent, and though it lacks any memorable characteristics, it certainly is an easy drinker I'd revisit.

Beer: Pere Jacques
Type: Belgian Dubbel
ABV: 8%

I picked up this brew at Premier Gourmet in Buffalo, which is an amazing store worthy of a post of its own.  It's like a supermarket, where one half is wine and the other half is beer/spirits, and in between are a whole array of kitchen gadgets, cheeses and other products that could very nearly destroy my bank account if I were to indulge myself.  A little pricier than Consumer Beverages, but the selection is a little larger and you just feel that extra bit snooty walking through the aisles.  I picked this brew up because of the label before I even noticed that it was a Goose Island brew - it just looked so much like an unassuming red wine bottle that it caught my eye.  This brew is a Belgian dubbel, which means that it will have some elements of red wine to it.

This one went into my trusty handy-dandy Duvel glass, with the pour producing a lovely ruby-chestnut concoction, with about three-quarters of an inch of off-white foam, which survived throughout the tasting and left some flecks of lacing.

Nose was quite nice, with notes of plum, sherry, pear, medicinal/herbal hops, a touch of pepper and caramel malt.

This is a solid dubbel, though not without a few little quirks that keep the brew firmly in the "good", rather than "great" camp.  The same tasting notes are there - lots of fruit, herbs, sherry and Belgian yeast flavor - but are a bit overpowered by the medicinal character of the brew.  Still, there is a nice warming alcohol feel to it, which is delivered with tart, but mild carbonation.  Medium bodied.  A little bit hot, I'd have to say; had I thought ahead, I'd have picked up a second bottle to age for a year.

I enjoy dubbels a great deal; with some tweaking and perhaps a bit of aging, this brew would really be quite something.

With no recollection of how the brewery's current output compares to its pre-ownership state, I can't really say anything about the current quality of Goose Island's brews, other than the fact that the two I've had here were both solid takes on their respective styles.  Goose Island is a huge brewery, with approximately fifty or so beer listings indicated on Beer Advocate, so there remains a great deal more of the brewery to explore.   Perhaps a benefit of the recent takeover might be that with the resources of Anheuser-Busch, more Goose Island brews can find their way outside of their usual markets - and, dare I say it, in Ontario?  Here's hoping.

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