Goose Island Beer Dinner at the Signature Room

May 16 2011 - 4:23 PM

After the Goose Island beer dinner I attended last week at the John Hancock Tower's Signature Room, I talked briefly with a rep from Goose Island about their beers and came to this realization:  these people love their beers.  Love them.  Kind of like the way Paul McCartney loves a melody he writes.  Or the way that Sammy Sosa used to love his home runs as he trotted the bases.  And you can understand the self-love, the mirror kissing.  As the beer dinner demonstrated, Goose Island has the mainstream clout and marketability to fetch a mega-deal with Anheuser Busch and they still have the guts to experiment with some of their higher end beers.  Under such a scenario, who wouldn't puff out their chest?   And the excitement is not unjustified.

The beer dinner consisted of five courses, each paired with a different higher-end Goose offering, mainly their "white tablecloth" beers.  Upon entering the event, I passed on the complimentary 312, more interested in getting to the main event of beers of little familiarity.  We began with Sofie.  Designed to appeal to wine drinkers, Sofie is a saison that relies upon a substantial amount of orange, as extracted from a heap of zest, and modest acidity to stand up to creamy, fatty dishes.  The chef paired it with a coconut curry cuttlefish that practically dissolved on the palate.  Sofie's heavy orange syrup aroma and mild flavor hung in there quite well against such richness.

Next in line was Lolita, a 7-8% sour that is not available in retail and only found in restaurants.  Goose claims to let it age in Cabernet barrels with 40 pounds of raspberries until ready.  This was paired with a chicken liver pate and a raspberry sauce along with a wafer.  It smells enough of raspberries and has much of the acidic power you want in a sour; but a metallic mid-palate flavor crippled this effort a bit.

I was very familiar with Matilda, the fairly ubiquitous Belgian mild ale.  It's not a beer I seek out much because its flavor is dichotomous with the boldness I normally seek out in beers, but it worked well with its pork belly paring.  The earthy, graininess of Matilda kept it from being overwhelmed by the juicy, fatty chunks of pork with jam, as the Matilda, like a table wine, provided the meal with a pleasant foundation.

The Pepe Nero was the only moment that fell flat.  An unusual peppercorn saison brew with a cola's appearance, they paired it with a steak, an item that naturally pairs with pepper.  It takes some guts to bring a beer like this to market, but I can't imagine many will see them as having yet achieved their vision here.  The pepper is way too out of balance and suffocates any of the beer's subtleties.  The finish is punishingly long (make it stop!), kind of like that cough syrup mom gave you that continues to linger.  And linger.  And take up residence in your mouth like an infestation.  Anyone who has a gallon of Minute Maid for me to rise with, I'll remember you in my will.  Future bottlings of this may prove successful but this notable brew is not one I'd willingly accept in the near future.

Finally came the star of the show, the Big John. I had tried a sampling of this before, I believe at Dark Lord Day, but this would be my first full glass.  If you needed a reminder that Goose Island, at its core, has little in common with the Budweiser family, this was it.  A Nightstalker base brewed with cocoa, Big John displays roasted coffee and toffee on the nose, and a bitter chocolate nuttiness throughout. It is rich.  It glides into your belly as smoothly as anything out of a cup at Hot Chocolate in Bucktown, and might, perhaps, best the entire Bourbon County line as Goose's crowning achievement to date. And how could the chef lose when pairing it with a pudding melded with Big John malt, and a ladyfinger dipped in it?  Talk about a devious but delicious way of gaming the system!

My overall impression is that with their Belgian lineup, Goose Island has crafted a roster of beers that are not bold, not rugged, but mild-flavored, pleasant accompaniments to meals, and noteworthy introductions to Belgian brewing that generally remain accessible.  They get credit for some unique experimentation too.  And, I'm spent.  Someone please get me another glass of that Big John.

–Mark Sheppard