Category: US Craft Beer

| Anheuser-Busch, Beer, Craft Beer, Goose Island, London, US Craft Beer

Goose Island Bourbon County 2019

Last night I was invited to an exclusive beer launch. Exclusivity around beer – some beer, sometimes – is no bad thing. But that doesn’t mean you need to be an arse about it.

Nice. I’ll have a pint, thanks.

“Sorry mate, there’s a private party tonight, the bar’s closed.”

If you’re the poor bastard charged with being on the door with a clipboard, there are two ways you could handle your role.

One, you could say hello to anyone approaching the door and ask, “Are you here for the Bourbon County event?” If they say no, you could explain the bar is closed. If they say yes, you could then ask for their name and, if it’s there, tick it off the list. This is what happens at most events I go to.

The other way is to look at the person approaching the door, make a snap judgement, assume that this is a person who couldn’t possibly have been invited to this kind of party, and bar them entry, your voice making a rare downward turn at the end of the sentence, the word ‘closed’ being definite, with no hint of a question about it.

There’s no way this guy thinks I might actually be on the list on his clipboard – he’s making that very clear. Maybe it’s my body shape. Maybe it’s what I’m wearing. But I suspect it’s my age: I now look less like a craft beer drinker than a craft beer drinker’s dad who’s turned up with their lift home. (If you’re truly wondering whether something is fashionable or not, just observe whether ageism has crept into the scene yet.) Whatever it is, when the account exec from the PR agency was given his piece of paper on what to expect from an exclusive beer launch, I clearly wasn’t on it.

Happily after being made to feel like shit on the door, things improve rapidly.

Inside Goose Island Shoreditch, I’m immediately welcomed with a glass of smoked porter that the resident brewer, Andrew Walton, has created for the season. He likes dark beers. So do I. I wish more people did: it seems we can only have dark beers these days if they’re absolutely massive and/or incredibly complicated. But on days like this, when it’s already darkening outside and the roads and pavements shine blackly, it’s nice to have at least one drinkable choice that’s a little darker than a pale ale.

And dark beers are the order of the night tonight. The invite-only crowd is here for the 2019 launch of Goose Island Bourbon County. In a scene full of hyped beers that people queue for and then trade, with no small amount of instagramming and YouTubing, this is one of the hypiest. And with good reason.

Goose Island was a pioneer of whisky barrel-aged beers. First brewed in 1992 to celebrate the 1000th batch of Goose Island beer, it was aged in Bourbon barrels. Kentucky is south-east of Chicago, a mere four-hour drive from the brewery. As Bourbon barrels are used for the character of freshly charred oak, they can only be used once by whisk(e)y makers. Back in the nineties, any brewer wanting to use them to age beer had a ready supply. If you’re wondering whether Goose Island truly was a pioneer, when they first entered Bourbon County into the Great American Beer Festival in 1995, it was disqualified because it didn’t fit any of the style guidelines at the time.

Since then, the brewers have learned more about the process and played around with the different barrels available to them. Andrew Walton declares it to be ‘The most important beer Goose Island make.’ He tells us how Chicago’s baking summers and sub-zero winters are perfect for the ageing process, making the wood expand and contract, so the beer really gets into the wood, and the wood gets into the beer.

One of Goose Islands’ massive barrel ageing rooms in Chicago, taken 2014

The sense of anticipation builds as Andrew leads a tutored tasting, beginning with two more dark beers he’s brewed here in the Shoreditch brewpub. The first, a stout brewed with sour cherries and tonka beans, is like a spicy Black Forest gateau, and I can’t decide whether it’s a perfect beer to go with dessert or dessert in its own right.

That bottle came straight home.

Nemesis is a Doppelbock aged in Madeira barrels, a collaboration with Orbit brewing, and it’s a revelation. As a lager, Doppelbock is obviously lighter in body than a stout or porter, and you might think it wouldn’t take the characteristics of ageing as well, but it’s buttery, rummy, juicy and fruity, with a huge amount of madeira character.

Finally, we get two vintages of Bourbon County: the new 2019, and last year’s 2018. Both were aged for a year in Bourbon barrels, but this year they played around with the mix: a combination of Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace. The 2018 has a huge dose of marmite on the nose. It’s a familiar ageing trait, but it’s here by the bucketload. Then you get a bunch of flavours that all go together, and I realise for the first time that each one is a special treat to the people who love it: Bourbon, chocolate and tobacco, all sitting there together, the taste of a gentleman’s club or, more appealingly, the lounge of an upscale Scottish Highlands hotel. Standing around a waist height table in the brewpub, the beer screams for a big leather Chesterfield for full enjoyment.

The 2019 expression is very different. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever said this about a beer of 15.2% ABV, but it’s cleaner and lighter. The chocolate and vanilla characteristics are much more straightforward. It’s neither better nor worse than 2018, just intriguingly different. If you haven’t had the 2018 first, it’s a beer to finish the night on, especially if you haven’t had much else beforehand. It’s almost impossible to imagine having one of these to yourself, or drinking it in less than an hour if you do.

Anheuser Busch-Inbev have done a great deal wrong since they took over Goose Island in 2011. It feels like they don’t have a clue what to do with it. Once an absolute craft beer pioneer – Goose Island IPA is the beer I used to introduce countless people to craft beer a decade or so ago – it now feels like it’s lost its way and been eclipsed by its rivals. People always say this about beers that get taken over, and they’re not always right, but Goose Island IPA is definitely not the same beer it used to be. New launches such as ‘Goose Midway’ seem to be aimed squarely at the mainstream lager drinker while offering no real reason why they should choose it over Foster’s or Stella. The abbreviation to ‘Goose’ smells of the kids at school who say ‘my name is Steve but people call me The Space Cowboy’ when only Steve himself does.

But they’ve got a couple of things absolutely right, and they’ve done that mainly by not interfering with something that was working well. The barrel-aged programme – which includes Belgian-style fruit beers aged in wine barrels as well as the whisky barrel-aged stuff – produces beer after beer that is uncompromised and, almost without exception, stunning.

Fruit cake.

Mike Siegel, head of the barrel programme, is largely left to his own devices, as evidenced by the recent launch of Obidiah Poundage, a three-way collaboration between Goose Island, beer historian Ron Pattinson and Wimbledon Brewery’s Derek Prentice. These people had a great deal of fun making this beer at Goose Island’s expense – and also to Goose Island’s benefit.

The only real change that’s happened to the annual Bourbon County release is that there’s now more hype around it. The scarcity value of the beer has increased massively – given that I’m so old I look to some people like I shouldn’t be here tonight, I can remember simply going down to Utobeer on Borough Market and buying a four-pack. I did wonder at one point if I was imagining this, but I found the evidence at the back of my cellar:

Not sure what year this was…

Sadly the bottles are long gone.

The only intervention ABI seem to have made around Bourbon County is to put some PR agency thinking behind it. And I have to say, I think they’ve done the right thing here. Do I wish Bourbon County was cheaper and more widely available, like it used to be? Well… not quite. I wish I had some more of it in my cellar, but that’s different. It’s good that a beer that is so innovative, that takes over a year to make, that’s stronger than most wines, should have a halo of mystique around it.

There are literally thousands of different beers on sale in the UK right now. We don’t need all of them to be affordable and accessible. The existence of a few like this gives the beer scene an anchor in something truly special. And when Andrew says ‘This is my favourite beer to introduce non-beer drinkers to,” – yes, this 15% monster with huge dollops of wood and Bourbon character pressing in on an already complex beer – it’s clearly doing something for beer as a whole.

If you feel like treating yourself or a loved one, you can buy Bourbon County from Beer Hawk, seeing how it’s now also owned by AB-Inbev.


| Brooklyn Brewery, Miracle Brew, US Craft Beer

My Spin-Ale Tap Tour: A Look Back at America

Last month I did my first ever book tour of North America. I had intended to blog the tour as it progressed, but the sheer amount of time and effort it took, combined with limited access to wifi, meant I couldn’t do much at all while I was over there. So here, on the faint off-chance that it might be interesting, is the first part of my highlights of a beery ten days over the pond.

Part One: New York, 14th-17th October

When you fly into the US from Europe, beating jet leg is easy: you just have to stay up really late the first night. (It’s so much more difficult the other way round.) For this trip I’m staying in Queens. I’ve only ever stayed in Manhattan before, but in terms of affordability, that may as well now be Mars. Most of my events are in Brooklyn, so it makes sense to stay close. An AirB&B just over the border in Queens is the limit of affordability on this trip.

Queens reminds me of parts of North East London where I live: a highly ethnically diverse population (in this case Latin American) with the first signs of creeping gentrification. The first of these signs are, inevitably, the artisanal coffee shop and the craft beer bar. There are plenty of the former around my apartment (some doubling delightfully as second-hand bookshops) and there’s one of the latter just at the bottom of the road I’m staying on, amid the 24-hour delis selling six-packs and microwavable heart attacks. The coffee shops are all closed by the time I’m settled in, so it looks like it’s going to have to be the craft beer bar.

Craft Culture has only been open a few months. It follows the craft beer bar template: brightly lit, minimally modernist, with big fridges, a wide array of taps and a generosity with the wifi password I never find in more traditional bars or pubs. (Bars like this recognise that the punters’ Instagram accounts are their primary marketing channel.)

I ask what’s local, and among the suggestions is a ‘gose cider’. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to create this particular combination, so I have to give it a try.

Murky. Minimally carbonated. Massively fucked about with. And unutterably refreshing and enlivening. The perfect dislocated jet lag cure.

‘Peaks and Valleys’, from the Graft Cidery in Newburgh, New York, is one of a range of ‘Gose ciders’ that is itself part of a broader range of sour ciders. It’s another lovely example of what can happen when you start messing with stuff where you don’t have established traditions to hold you back. There’s a trend for sour beers. A lot of farmhouse and a great deal of Spanish cider has sour characteristics. What happens if you play in the space between the two?  This seasonal, ‘Not Pumpkin Cider’ has been created with the addition of birch bark, cinnamon, anise & sea salt. They say it ‘tastes like a spiced birch beer!’ I say it’s one of the most absurdly refreshing drinks I’ve ever tasted and should be given out as a mandatory tonic to any non-teetotallers immediately at the end of a seven hour flight. I have no idea what a traditional West Country cider maker would say about it, but I imagine you’d have to stand well back while they were saying it.

I move on down the road to the Ridgewood Alehouse, for my traditional New York ritual – namely, sitting at the bar late at night, trying to understand the sports on the banks of TV screens behind the bar, insisting on figuring it out for myself and resisting the friendly attempts at explanation from my fellow bar flies, and just soaking up the atmosphere.

The commercial breaks come every five minutes, and every time it’s the same ads. There’s one for Taco Bell, showing a quesadilla being made with a ton of cheese, covered with deep-fried chicken nuggets and then folded over. My arteries fur just watching it. The strapline at the end is ‘Live Mas!’ or ‘Live More’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an advertising line that’s more at odds with the product it’s showing.

One of these has 650 calories and contains 65% of your daily recommended intake of saturated fat, 25% of your daily cholesterol and 62% of your daily salt. They are always shown in servings of four. Live More!

Most of the other people here are drinking shots now rather than beers, bourbon poured into chunky glasses that shape the liquid within into a brown bullet. The proprietor of a blog called naughtygossip.com is being interviewed about Harvey Weinstein. California is going up in flames and Donald Trump still hasn’t mentioned it. The new Lexus ad is an action movie with a constant stream of subtitles such as ‘Professional drivers, do not attempt,’ and ‘collision damage not covered by warranty.’ Another ad for college football cuts between images depicting an ancient battlefield, corpses lying with feathered arrows in their backs, and the football team striding purposefully towards the camera.  This is the land of the free, whose origin story is defined by scarcity, and now allows us to let loose our appetites like nowhere else in the world. The whole country hankers after excess. Trump waddles to a podium, and I realise the only thing he cares about is being top of the news cycle, all the time. He doesn’t care why he’s there, he just has to be. Melania stands behind him, a waxwork in big dark glasses.

I’m not drunk. I’m not tired. I’m in a grey limbo beyond both, my sober mind locked in a panic room, believing it’s still calling the shots. But I’ve made it. It’s late. I have no idea how long I’ve been awake, how long ago that first drink in the departure lounge was. I can go now, back to my studenty apartment. If I want to. I’m not sure I do. The capacity to make decisions has long gone.

The next day I kill my laptop. I spend two hours walking across Brooklyn and realise that on its own, it’s bigger than most other cities I’ve ever visited. I take the subway into Manhattan, ready to spend a day being a tourist. I have one column to write before I can relax into my schedule here, and decide to do it sitting at a bar watching the ballgame. As I finish the column, I reach for my pint of IPA, go in a little too high and tip it over, pouring it into my keyboard. Over the past decade I’ve done this twice before. I turn the computer off, flip it upside down, stuff it with paper towels, but I know it’s pointless. It’s dead. I need to work while I’m here and I need to present the slides for my talk tomorrow night. So I spend my one touristy afternoon in New York spending money I don’t have on a new laptop, going back to my apartment and downloading my life back from the cloud. And then rewriting the bastard column.

Monday, it’s time to get to work. Back over in Brooklyn I’m due at the Heritage Radio Network. Just around the corner is a ramen place, where I stop for lunch. Back in the nineties I ate in the first branch of Wagamama just after it opened, when there were queues around the block. I thought I knew what ramen was. Now, I can never eat in Wagamama again. Ichiran is a traditional ramen place opened by a family that immigrated from Japan and does Tonkotsu ramen and nothing else. You’re directed to a private booth, separated from the kitchen by a bamboo screen. You order a customisable ramen, where you can choose the softness of your noodles, the heat, the richness of the stock and additional toppings and sides, by ticking boxes on a slip of paper. You hand this over, and the bowl arrives within five minutes. The servers – whose faces you never see – then bow deeply and lower the bamboo screen, and you eat your ramen in splendid isolation.

Reasonably spicy, rich stock, extras mushrooms, special red sauce.

I will never eat ramen again until I can be assured it will be this good. It’s a terrible curse: taste it once, experience bliss, knowing it’s changed you and made things that were once OK taste like ash by comparison. If I have to sell my house in London and buy a shoebox in Brooklyn to eat this again, it would be worth it.

On to the radio station – deliciously situated in the back of a wonderfully homely pizza restaurant and bar broadcasting Halloween movies, with a courtyard featuring an extra pizza grill and a tiki bar. Heritage Radio is an entire network devoted to praising the joys of local food and drink. With its origins in the Slow Food movement, it’s as if the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme gets to take over the entire schedule.

Typical weekly schedule for Heritage Radio. Let’s start one here in London.

I record an episode of Fuhmentaboudit, a show that covers all things fermented, from cheese to tempeh, but with a focus on home brewing. You can listen to my episode here.

Fuhmentaboudit!

Then, it’s off to the Brooklyn Brewery to record an episode of the Steal This Beer podcast, with Augie Carton and John Holl. You can listen to my episode here.

And then, straight into a presentation of Miracle Brew to the Legion of Osiris. This is basically a group of beer fans masquerading as some kind of freemason cult. They’re hilarious, passionate about beer and insanely welcoming. I’d put up a link to them singing their song, cribbed from this Simpsons scene, but I fear I might be breaking some rules of the ancient order of Osiris if I did so. It’s a brilliant event – a great start to the tour. And it ends with Brooklyn brewmaster Garrett Oliver pouring secret, unlabelled bottles from his experimental stash until I can no longer see.

Next day it’s over to Jersey City for a tour with my friend John Holl and a look around the Departed Soles Brewery. Saying you tasted wonderful IPAs in this country is like saying the sun rises here, but these guys make a really wonderful IPA. So there.

Back over to Brooklyn and Heritage Radio, to do Beer Sessions, with Jimmy Carbone. This is my third programme talking about Miracle Brew in two days, but everyone has wanted to explore different things within the book, and I’m on the programme with Jason Sahler, the founder of the Strong Rope Brewery, which makes a point of using ingredients entirely from New York state, so we have a great chat about terroir and the role of place in beer ingredients. Jason’s stuff really is worth checking out. You can listen to our show here. 

Afterwards, it’s great to go out and explore a few bars with Jason, Qurban Walia from Crafted Exports, who ships beers both ways between the UK and US, Ed Valenta of Harpoon Brewing who flew down from Boston to have a beer with us, and Qurban’s friend who looks eerily like Eric Cantona, and has no idea who that is until I spend all night telling him how much he looks like Eric Cantona.

Yes, a German Style IPA. You got a problem with that?

 

My new ‘trying to keep my eyes open’ pose.

 

His Cantona is way better than my Russell Crowe, which seems to have faded…

And that’s New York. A whirlwind of breweries, bars and banter, and hardly any of it in Manhattan itself. It’s so nice to get a picture of the broader city, the different rhythms and textures within it. Does it make any difference to book promotion? I have no idea. But Miracle Brew was already being stocked in Barnes & Noble, and being able to see that alone made the trip.

Next Time: Boston and Vermont.

Miracle Brew is my third book to receive a bespoke US publication, but the first where the publisher has devoted so much time and expense to promoting the title. I’m enormously grateful to Chelsea Green Publishing for flying me across and organising my itinerary. Thanks so much guys.