Written by Ale Sharpton (@AleSharpton)
Craft brewing is always full of intrigue, but the last three years have been particularly eventful for Chicago’s Goose Island. After garnering countless awards and creating trailblazing brews like Bourbon County Stout (one of the first barrel-aged American beers) since opening up shop in 1988, the celebrated brewery finally “sold out” to Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2010, allowing the multinational giant to come on board for $38.8 million to assist in the production and distribution of Goose Island products.
The immediate response from beer-geek circles was harsh, with many fans wondering if the brand could still be considered “craft” if it fell in the same family tree as Bud and Stella. But since then, the Goose Island team has been hard at work to prove that craft brewing is about how a product is made, not the size of the brewery or who owns it.
Besides the highly anticipated variations of the prized barrel-aged Bourbon County Brand Stout—Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout, Brand Barleywine, Backyard Rye, and Proprietor’s—hitting shelves today (a.k.a. Black Friday), Goose Island has been reeling brew geeks back into the fold with an innovative quartet of fruit-based, Belgian-style wild ales popularly recognized as the “Sisters.” The coveted set includes the Gillian, brewed with honey, white pepper, and strawberries (9.5% ABV); the Halia, infused with peaches and aged in wine barrels (7.5% ABV); the blackberry-laced Juliet (8% ABV); and the raspberry-infused Lolita (8.2%).
After scoring a bottle of the Gillian, we got a chance to pour a glass with her “daddy”—Goose Island fifth-year brewer Keith Gabbett. Here, he discusses the genesis of Four Sisters, how life has changed since the landmark merger, the brewery’s kickass barrel-aging program, and what’s next.
How did the whole “Sisters” crew materialize?
Keith Gabbett: About six years ago or so, the brewers got an innovation team together—which is still in place—and one of the things we talked about was our barrel-aging program and using wine barrels. We have done the bourbon barrels and enjoyed that, but we kind of wanted to turn the corner by doing fruit beers instead of a heavy stout. So after experimenting with a few different styles and the ales being well-received starting with the Juliet, followed by the Madame Rose and Lolita, we sat on those for a while, and perfected them at best we could. We then worked on the Halia and Gillian up to now.
And the Gillian is like your baby, right?
You are 100 percent correct. I owe a lot to my wife and this amuse-bouche she made with raspberry sherbet as my influence. This Gillian version turned out exactly how I wanted it to be. We were working on it within four or five months of my arrival at Goose Island. The past attempts at making these ales were all through stainless steel with no Brettanomyces and barrel-aging. They were really, really good, but they were lacking a little something, so we added the Brettanomyces [yeast] to it, aged them in barrels, and fooled around with the recipe a bit. It then oozed with that wild strawberry feel and aroma I was looking for. I was carrying its torch for a few years and to see it finally bottled on a shelf in a store—I’m definitely very, very proud of my ‘baby.’
With all four of the sisters, which fruit was the most meticulous and taxing to brew with?
The strawberries tend to lose their flavor profile rather quickly so I was really happy with how the Gillian turned out after the many months of aging it. But I’d say with the peaches from simply a handling perspective; there were so many we had to pit, so that was probably the hardest ones that we have done.
So what’s next for Goose Island?
Oh man, the sky is the limit right now. I don’t have any specific sour beers coming out right now, but we have a couple of other ideas in the works, including a rye IPA, and the Ten Hills Pale Ale is now out, which is one of our more straightforward hop-focused beers. It’s very away from some of the typical, citrusy beers people are accustomed to. Then there’s the Endless IPA that is all Amarillo hops and very tasty; it’s something people should go nuts for.
How has the AB InBev acquisition factored into all of this innovation and the limited releases? How has the rest of the Goose Island team dealt with the changes over the last few years?
You know, initially, there was a lot more backlash from it, but as we’ve gone on over the past couple years, the quality of our beer hasn’t suffered—and in many ways, it’s improved. Plus, with the numerous beer brands and more volume, people have come around. That’s a really positive thing. We are all over the States now, our sour program has doubled if not tripled, our bourbon-aging program has at least doubled, and we are constantly innovating over here, so it is a really good time to be at Goose Island right now. We honestly would not be anywhere close to where we are without the acquisition happening.
Okay, one last thing—let’s say you are having a Thanksgiving leftovers feast with some of the most respected brewmasters and gourmands. What brew would you bring to the table?
Oh, I would break out the Gillian, of course. [Laughing] I think it would pair nicely with roasted turkey. There’s the spice from the white pepper, and a little bit of that residual sweetness from the honey, and then carbonation levels will cut through the thickness of the gravy and dressing. I think it would go very well!