I visited Goose Island years ago in Chicago not long after the place was starting to develop legs. I was there twice in fact. I never really liked the beers to be honest. The brewpub was a fun place, large and with a good menu, but the beers seemed so-so to me. In particular, the famous IPA always seemed an odd bird with a “garden greenery” nose and taste that was not that attractive.
In later years, I did try various GI beers when I could get them, and certainly the Bourbon County Stout made an impression although – not to sound ungrateful – I don’t think bourbon barrels suit strong stout or any beer. But that’s aside the point as the beer is a landmark in recent American brewing history, to be sure.
There was one beer I did like though, Honkers Ale, probably because it has an English-oriented palate. There are some English hops in the beer, particularly the aroma, and a good soft fruits quality which evokes a certain tradition in English brewing. It isn’t the best American ale certainly, but a sound choice for a tasty, solid beer or two. Its 4.3% ABV is a nice change from the usual higher gravities of American pale and India pale beers, as well.
When GI’s IPA and Honkers became available here on draft a couple of years ago now, I believe they were imported from Chicago, or an American production locale at any rate. This draft was okay but I always like to try a beer in a can or bottle as one has the best chance to get it in optimal condition and without risk of unclean lines or other bad handling, which is more of a problem than many realize.
As it was time, today I tried the canned version available at The Beer Store, which is brewed now at various Labatt plants in Canada including in London, ON. This arrangement follows the purchase of Goose Island by mega-brewer Anheuser Busch InBev a few years ago.
The nose was fruity, almost like an Extra Special Bitter – well, Fuller’s – in England, but also say like Red Tail Ale of Mendocino Brewing or Red Hook‘s ESB or Audible Ale, which were influenced by English ale styles. There was a modest but welcome note of floral hops, I’d guess Golding, famous for hundreds of years as one of the premier ale hops. The taste was fairly full, bearing in mind too the 4.3% ABV, with a toffee-like note. It’s probably from caramel or crystal malt, a characteristic of the “bitter'” which lorded English town and dale until brewery consolidation reduced choice there and craft brewers started to introduce the American (citric) hop taste. (Good judges of beer in England tell me the old taste is far from history though, which is good to know).
And indeed Honkers does feature an American twang too, both in the flavour and finish, I’d call it a grapefruit/rhubarb taste. Withal it is of transatlantic character, while naturally more fowl than fish. 🙂
The can showed no oxidation whatever – no damp paper smell or acetic development. This is a testament to the skill of big brewery staff and impeccable brewhouse procedures. I’d guess the beer is pasteurized but can’t really tell – all to the good.
The field is still open for a brewer in Canada or the U.S. to make a really English-tasting beer. I am sure a few exist here or there, but nothing widely available as far as I know. If Honkers had a stronger dose of those Goldings and used Fuggles or Target or another English hop as the bitterness backbone, it would be a stand out. But then it wouldn’t be Honkers, and a lot of people like it, so Honkers should stay as it is, and someone should fill this gap.
The true English flavour in top-fermented beer is unbeatable, but it has to be done right. The old Courage beers, e.g., Best Bitter or Directors, or the old Ruddles, would be a great place to start. (Image below is from Charles Wells’ website, here).