Goose Island: On Brewing Great Beer and Why the Future Looks Bright

Brian Taylor’s passion is sour beer. As a veteran brewer for Chicago’s Goose Island, exploration and experimentation runs deep in his veins, and when pressed on the question of which Goose release is his favorite, his answer is simply stated, “Juliet.”

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“I had just started with Goose Island in 2007,” Brian said as I settled in across from him with a Bourbon County Coffee in hand. “I was on an innovation team that we had just formed with two guys – Phil Wymore and Matt Lincoln. I wasn’t new to brewing but I had no idea about barrel aged beer. We all brought our ideas to the table and these two guys were like, we want to do cabernet barrel aged beer, make it a rye ale, add some blackberries… And I’m like, what? I’ve got this nice IPA recipe. What the heck are you guys talking about?”

“They taught me how to do this barrel aged stuff. And we made Juliet and it was the best beer that I had ever had. It got me hooked on sours. After that we did Lolita. Then Sofie. Then Madame Rose. And now we’ve got another 3-4 more sours that we’re putting out this year.”

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Goose Island was founded in 1988 by John Hall and has had a long tradition of innovation. In 2011, the company was acquired by AB InBev and since then, many have wondered: what happens to a great craft brewery when it is swallowed up by a monolithic global corporation? Brian Taylor is not an exception. He asked the same questions when he first found out about the deal.

“I wasn’t happy when all of that (stuff with AB) went down. I was worried. But so far so good. They’ve held up their side of their bargain – to let us be. Obviously, you don’t know anything when you first get going, but it has been well over two years now and it’s the same thing.”

The deal between Goose and AB sent a bit of a shock through the industry when it happened. Many assumptions have been made, and plenty of craft beer fans have been vocal about their disapproval; with some going so far as to cast Goose aside, into the abyss of big beer. From my perspective, though, the only change I’ve noted as of late is seeing more of Goose Island’s experimental, exceptional (and typically hard-to-find) beers in the market – like Bourbon County, Juliet and Big John. Fact is (at least here in Boston), it has never been so easy to get my hands on these beers. And to that point I say: how could that possibly be a bad thing for consumers?

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“I think something that people get confused about is that we’re still a brewery in Chicago. The brewery didn’t leave.” From his demeanor, I could tell that Brian has had this conversation with a lot of people. “We’re still making the exact same beers. We’re making new beers. There are 10 brewers, we’re all still in charge of making our new beers. There’s not a single AB employee at our brewery. I understand that AB is this huge conglomerate, just like MillerCoors, and people want a conspiracy theory. They want somebody behind the scenes saying this makes us a ton of money. Don’t make Bourbon County anymore. It’s too much time in a barrel. Keep on making 312. It’s just not what’s happening.”

And that sentiment was pretty clear from this evening’s tap takeover at Foundry on Elm in Somerville, MA. The list was impressive to say the least – there was no 312, Honkers or IPA present. Just the good stuff: Bourbon County, Bourbon County Coffee, Naughty Goose, Big John, 2013 Imperial IPA, Sofie Paradisi… I don’t know about you, but when I taste these beers now they taste just as damn good as ever before. Perhaps even better considering I’ve never had the opportunity to try most of them fresh off the tap.

“We’re making beers we want to make,” Brian asserted. “The marketing and sales team… they let us do what we want. And now we have time to make it. It’s the good old days again… Where we used to be called the 312 Brewing Company. And now we get to brew our beers again.”

Happy brewers? Check. Happy customers? Check.

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There are some clear changes, however, that have taken place since the acquisition. For instance, the vast majority of Goose Island’s core line – 312, Honkers and IPA – is being made by AB. But, Brian insists that the quality hasn’t changed. In fact, he even goes so far as to say that AB may have even made those beers better.

“It took eight months for AB to get 312 right. They were dumping thousand-barrel batches. The beer kept coming out so different from ours because the yeast wasn’t prepared for that much stress… for thousand barrel fermenters. It took a really long time for them to perfect it. But I’ll swear to God, they dumped it every time and they got it right.”

With AB successfully taking the majority of production for 312, IPA and Honkers off of Goose’s hands, they in turn have given the Goose operation more time and resources to concentrate on the really good stuff and the experimental brews. Tell me again what’s wrong with this?

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Brian paused for a moment to search for a picture on his phone. “I want to show you something.” He passed the phone across the table and pointed at a picture of one of Goose Island’s barrel warehouses. “This is what I’m proud to go to work for. This is our wine barrel warehouse, and our bourbon barrel warehouse is next door.”

“We do every single barrel by hand. We have to stick a barrel wand in there and suck it out with CO2 pressure and there are clumps of grapes and… I think you’ll see a lot more of the good stuff coming out. I think you’ll be impressed. And now we have time. We just added five more 500 barrel fermenters for Matilda and Sofie.”

“Listen, if you worked in the cellar at Goose Island before AB, you’d have trouble finding a pump that worked. We were like any other brewery. Breweries are strapped for cash. And it’s really hard to change. And you know you’ve been at a brewery for so long that you’re just used to it and nothing really changes for the better. And you just fly by the seat of your pants. Since the buyout, they like to buy us stuff and help us. So you’re not going to get a complaint from me, because I actually do the work.”

And, in sum, you’re not going to get a complaint from me either because as I’ve pointed out, I think these guys have continued to make great beer and the fact that I can find more of their offerings in the market is a good thing.

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As for my favorites, well, I’m a big fan of the entire Bourbon County line. I mean, really, who doesn’t love a superbly well made bourbon barrel aged imperial stout that’s dark as night and bursting with rich, balanced flavors. I was also really impressed with their Imperial IPA – by far the hoppiest beer I’ve had from the Goose line – and Naughty Goose – an English-style brown ale that I could drink all night – neither of which I had ever seen in Boston. And from their Belgian line… Juliet. Brian and team did a damn fine job on this earthy, massively sour Belgian-style beer. And I can see why he calls it his favorite.

A big thanks to Brian Taylor and Ana Serafin from Goose Island. 

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  • Davin Schnappauf

    I love goose island, especially lolita, I had it at the American craft beer fest and haven’t been able to find it since.

    • http://drinkinsider.com Drink Insider

      Thanks for the comment, Davin. If you’re in the boston area, there’s a good amount of lolita around. Happy to point you in the right direction.