Goose Island and the Ocarina of Time (Or - why big brewery takeovers could be good for the industry)

Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis

Disclaimer: I write for Good Beer Hunting who have a commercial affiliation with Goose Island, and many other breweries through its consulting practice, but I personally do not. Thanks to my own affiliation with Good Beer Hunting I was given access to a Goose Island event where I was able to meet several of its employees and sample this years release of Bourbon County Stout but I wrote this article of my own free will. This article is intended as a follow up to a piece I wrote on Goose Island at the start of this year that can be read here.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that the corporate takeovers and mergers being orchestrated by the giants of the beer industry are in fact good for it.

A couple of months ago I was sat on a United Airlines flight from London to New York making my way to Denver for this years Great American Beer Festival. The drinks trolley arrives and I ask for a beer. “We’ve got Miller Lite, Budweiser or Heineken.” The attendant pauses and just as I’m about to ask for a Budweiser she continues: “oh we’ve got IPA too.” I don’t hesitate and I’m handed an ice-cold can that bares the familiar green livery of Goose Island IPA.

Back in December I paid a visit to the AB-InBev facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. This mammoth brewery churns out vast quantities of supermarket beers such as Bud Light Lime and Shock Top – InBev’s answer to Blue Moon. Recently, following the takeover of Goose Island by the multinational back in 2011, it’s become one of two facilities that now produces Goose Island's core beers: Honkers Ale, 312 Wheat and the aforementioned IPA.

I wanted to prove to myself that the beer they were producing was sub par compared to the product that used to come out of Chicago. I took grim satisfaction from proving myself right. The beer was an estery mess, with the bright flavours of tropical fruit over notes of chewy, caramel malt dumbed right down. I had written the beer off entirely. Only, the beer I was drinking from a can right now didn’t taste like the beer I tried in Fort Collins last December.

The bright flavours I remember the beer as once having were still no longer present but neither was it a cacophony of bum notes. One thing I did learn after my experience in Fort Collins was that the Goose Island yeast strain simply could not handle the volumes being produced at the Budweiser facility – hence its ester led hissy fit. The beer has been modified to accommodate this and that’s a shame but that didn’t mean I wasn’t enjoying the beer that was gracing my palm at that very moment.

It was ‘malty’, it was bitter – it was a damn sight better than the alternatives. I finished the can and asked for another. I wondered what beer might have been in my hand had InBev never bought Goose Island. Something from Ten Barrel perhaps, or how about something from Elysian? Both are recent AB-InBev purchases. Somehow Goose Island IPA just seemed right - in this time and in this place it was the perfect beer simply because it was the one I had in my hand.

I remember well the first time I experienced what is known these days as ‘the fear of missing out’ or FOMO. It was winter 1998, I was fifteen years old and when asked by my Dad what I wanted for Christmas I only had one answer: The Legend of Zelda - Ocarina of Time. Where beer is now my one true vice, video games were everything to me as a teenager. Immersive, story driven action adventure games such as Ocarina of Time we, for me, the pinnacle of gaming. Pliny the Elder, only enclosed in a grey, plastic cartridge.

I remember pestering my Dad repeatedly, almost aggressively about the game. Constantly reminding him of the release date and that orders were oversubscribed at the only video game shop in town. All my friends had it pre-ordered and their families had told them so but I had no idea whether I’d wake up and be able to play it on Christmas Day or not.

"Beer is forever transient and should never be held accountable just because it moves on and begins to serve a different purpose"

The tension was becoming uncomfortable, how could I turn up at school after the holidays and admit that I hadn’t played the game. What would I even do with myself during the holidays when all other activities seemed hollow and empty. I almost certainly became unbearable but then, one day, when my Dad returned from town, I darted into his room while his was cooking dinner. There in a bag on his dresser, to my substantial relief, was the black and gold box that contained the game – Christmas was saved. I started playing Ocarina at 6am on Christmas morning and completed it twelve days later.

In 2015 I still suffer from FOMO with the only difference being that I now know what it is, although I’m still no better at dealing with it. Thankfully the video game market has become so vast that I need never worry about missing out on the latest hyped release again. It gets announced, I order it, it gets delivered to my house on the day of release.  In 2015 all of my FOMO is caused by beer. I try to take an attitude wherein I simply enjoy the beer that happens to land in my lap at that time. The Goose Island IPA on my flight being a perfect example. That’s never really the case though; my passion for beer more often than not runs deeper than my self-control.

Goose BC 10.jpg

At the Denver Film Society on East Colfax Avenue, Goose Island, along with Good Beer Hunting’s Michael Kiser, are premiering the project they’ve spent the last few months working on to assembled industry and press. The Great American Beer Festival transforms Denver into a circus of press launches, beer dinners and tap takeovers, all the for the good of PR – the kind of furore that beer only dreams it can generate here in the UK.

Grit & Grain is a multi-part documentary that follows the creation of Goose Island’s iconic Bourbon County Stout and its many variants from beginning to end. It begins with former Goose Island Brewmaster Greg Hall talking about the beers inception before leading us on a journey around bourbon country itself, until finally bringing us back to the journey's end in Chicago. We’re shown the white oak forests in the Ozarks of Missouri and the family owned cooperage where virgin oak barrels are crafted before being transported to the towering rickhouses of Kentucky’s Heaven Hill distillery. We learn exactly how much effort goes into producing each bottle of Bourbon County, it's a wonderful story. 

We’re told that the nine part series will conclude on Black Friday, the 27th of November, today, when this year’s vintage of Bourbon County is officially released into the wild. Those of us at the premier were fortunate enough to try the beer, perhaps inducing some FOMO of our very own. Bourbon County is quite a remarkable thing and I’ve tried several vintages over the past few years. 2015 is molasses & vanilla, neat bourbon and cane sugar, leather, stone fruit and tannic oak. It’s as complex as an intense Shiraz and as enjoyable as a classic Nintendo RPG.

After the screening I ask the assembled panel if AB-InBev have had any influence over the production of this beer. “No’’ is the sharp and succinct answer. That’s not true of course, the barrel-ageing project at Goose Island has vastly increased in size since the takeover. Their buying power means they can get more oak in an industry where getting hold of decent barrels is starting to become a serious concern. Most importantly, the investment of AB-InBev means that more of this beer will be available to more people. Tell me the part about this being a bad thing because of the name on the top of the invoice, but don’t expect me to lend credence to your argument. 

As we leave the auditorium we’re each treated to a snifter of this years Bourbon County Rare – a beer that was allowed to inhabit some thirty five year old Heaven Hill barrels and not see the light of day again for two years. This stodgy beer was ripe with stone fruit, old leather, oloroso sherry, chewing tobacco and black tea. Recently released on Goose Island’s annual ‘Rare Day’ this beer fetched no less than $60 a bottle. I’m not going to even try and validate that price tag but the very fact that Goose Island were even allowed to attempt a beer as preposterous as this is telling. So long as airlines keep buying pallet after pallet of IPA then what happens in that barrel warehouse is of little concern to the brewery’s owners.

Bourbon County is 2015’s Ocarina of Time. People will clamour and crawl to get hold of a bottle and feel disappointment under false pretences if they don’t manage. Just like that can of IPA on my flight, a glass of Rare found its way into my hand and for all its preposterousness it just isn’t as good as plain old Bourbon County. A beer that, thanks to the investment of one multinational brewer, will find its way into the hands of a lot more people than it ever has before. 

When an old tree falls, new growth springs forth and the same could be said of breweries. The only winner is the consumer and if you’re still lamenting the decline of Goose IPA then you need to get over yourself and drink one of the hundreds, if not thousands of superb IPA’s that are being brewed the world over. Beer is forever transient and should never be held accountable just because it moves on and begins to serve a different purpose – consider this a lesson learned on my part.