Two weeks ago we huzzahed the arrival of Founders. There's another well-regarded newcomer to the market: Goose Island Beer Company (which ranks at #35 on RateBeer's 2012 list of the Best Brewers In the World). Some beers from the Chicago-based company (named for the only island on the Chicago River) have been available on draft for two months, and bottles are now arriving at stores.
Two offerings are from their Classic Ales line: Honker's Ale (a Bitter, 4.2% ABV) and India Pale Ale (5.9%). Both are rendered English-style, weighed toward the malt, easy on the hops, but tasty and balanced. And the 312 Urban Wheat Ale (named after the Chicago area code) is light (4.2%), golden, and smooth, with a touch of citrus. But the standouts are the entries from their Vintage Ales portfolio. The quartet of beers, which will be in stores in early April, all carry the same description: "Belgian Style Ale." The Goose Island folks say they favor the elegance of the wine-type labels and are relying on knowledgeable merchants (and shelf talkers) to explain the contents to consumers (though that's a rocky road: a few local stores that trumpet their beer expertise knew nothing about the imminent release of Hoptimum when I called around last week), but here's the lowdown on the range of styles:
• SOFIE (6.5%): A champagne-colored saison (named for the granddaughter of Goose Island founder John Hall), with a fifth of its content aged in wine barrels with orange peel. Light and tangy.
• MATILDA (7%): This Strong Pale Ale is an homage to Orval, the Trappist Ale named for the Countess of Tuscany (it's a long story involving a wedding ring and a trout and a monastery; Google it!). Wonderful fruity flavors, and lots of funky yeasty surprises.
• PEPE NERO (6%): A dark ruby saison, made with black peppercorns and dominated by roasted malts (and chestnuts). Perhaps the most intriguing of the line.
• PERE JACQUES (8.7%): An Abbey Ale (dubbel) named for the abbot at the Rochefort Trappist brewery who was a generous host to Hall and his touring band of beer enthusiasts. Ultra-malty (wheat, caramel, rye, and more) and multi-layered. Sweet and savory.
The ales are bottle-conditioned; it "develops in the bottle for up to 5 years," as it states on the labels. Cellar a few.
The not-so-microbrewery made headlines a year ago when it was purchased by Anheuser-Busch, which inspired heated debate in craft beer circles re: independent vs. corporate ownership. But the Goose Island folks say the alliance allows them to expand the output of their specialty beers (i.e., Christmas Ale, barrel-aged and sour ale projects) — to create the supply to meet the demand — since some batches of Honker's, IPA, and 312 are being produced at AB facilities (under strict quality-control guidelines).HOPS TO THE NTH POWER
Sierra Nevada's Hoptimum is back! Last year it was a limited released in 24-ounce bottles; this time around it's available in 12-ounce four-packs (and the brewer says it should be here through August; production was upped from 400 barrels to 3000). The Chico, CA, brewer has never been shy about making big beers, and this one is their biggest-ever IPA, crafted with whole-cone hops, and weighing it at a well-disguised 10.4% ABV. Hopheads (like the distinguished gentleman on the whimsical label) will devour this sweet, piney, aromatic wonder.