Food and beer dinner: Goose Island

The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) is one of the largest purchasers of alcoholic beverages in the world, but sometimes even they can only get their hands on a few cases of the rarer vintages. Occasionally these exceptional products never even make it to a store shelf; instead, the LCBO holds a special (rather expensive) dinner for their favourite customers featuring good food and rare vintages of wine, where the diners are given a single opportunity to order bottles of the wine they are tasting.

Up until now, these dinners have only been held for rare wines. This past week for the first time, the LCBO put on a Vintages dinner for beer, specifically Goose Island beers.

Goose Island was a well-respected craft brewery in Chicago, perhaps best known for Honkers Ale, a tasty well-balanced amber ale. I use the phrase “well-respected” in the past tense because in March 2011, founder John Hall announced that he had sold a majority share of his brewery to Anheuser-Busch, a major component of the brewing giant AB Inbev. Although the move gave Hall the capital he needed to increase production, most of the craft beer community has since turned their backs on Goose Island, believing that the Goose has waddled over to the Dark Side. According to the Brewers Association, Goose Island is no longer considered a craft brewer since it is owned by another brewery, which is a no-no according to their guidelines. This, of course, has instigated a fiery war of words over what constitutes a craft brewery. While the battles rage, Goose Island blithely continues to brew the beers they were brewing before the takeover.

Goose Island entered the Ontario market for the first time last year with the introduction of “Sofie”, a Belgian style farmhouse ale, and “Mathilda”, a Belgian style pale ale.

More recently the LCBO obtained a very limited number of bottles of two other Goose Island Belgian style beers, Pepe Negro and Pere Jacques, and rather than send them to some stores, it decided to distribute them via the aforementioned Vintages-style dinner.

Now, considering it was $125 to get in the door, you wouldn’t normally see me at one of these events. However, as a representative of the Brewmaster program, I received a pair of complimentary tickets from Labatt, and how often do I get to take Elaine on a date to Nota Bene, a très chic restaurant in downtown Toronto?

AB Inbev, which now owns Goose Island, is a conglomeration of many breweries around the world, including Canada’s Labatt. Since that makes Labatt and Goose Island kissing cousins, Labatt had a strong presence at the dinner. The crowd was an interesting mixture of beer lovers, beer scribes, friends of Labatt, and some high-powered guests.

In the end though, we were all there to taste the beer, and Goose Island did not disappoint.

The first course, an appetizer of black cod with a citrus vinaigrette, was accompanied by Sofie, the Belgian farmhouse ale already available in Ontario. Our hostess for the evening, a Certified Cicerone from Goose Island, shared with us that Sophie was named for John Hall’s first granddaughter when she turned 10. This is a lighter beer, both in terms of body and colour, with a subtly spicy nose and a slight citrussy pepperiness that contrasted nicely with the rich oiliness of the cod. I think that Sofie would also pair well with salads and soft cheeses.

The second course was suckling pig jowl, fried until it resembled very crisp bacon, on a salad of Brussel sprouts, apple and kimchi. The beer paired with this was Mathilda, a Belgian pale ale, and the other Goose Island offering available in Ontario. Mathilda was not named after another grandchild, but after the woman who founded Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval in the 10th century. (Apparently Mathilda dropped her wedding ring in a river, but recovered it when a trout surfaced with the ring in its mouth. She was so thankful that she funded the building of the monastery, now where the famous trappist beer Orval is brewed.)

Ironically, Belgian pale ale only dates back to the end of the Second World War (unlike farmhouse ale, an historic style that can be traced back through the centuries to those medieval times when trout retrieved wedding rings and monasteries were founded.) The recipe for pale ale was brought to Belgium by British soldiers, but Belgian brewers fermented the beer with native Belgian yeasts that added a spiciness to the otherwise familiar fruity aromas and caramel flavours. Goose Island goes one step further, giving Mathilda a secondary fermentation with brettanomyces, the wild yeast that imparts sour and further spicy notes. Overall this pairing worked — the rich caramel notes contrasted well with the saltiness of the pork, while the spiciness imparted by the brett stood up to the heat of the kimchi.

The third course was a very rare piece of rib steak. The beer chosen was Pepe Nero, another farmhouse ale with exactly the same recipe and fermentation process as Sofie except that a small amount of chocolate malt and black patent malt are added to the grist bill. This not only adds the much darker colour and rich roasty notes one would expect, but also accentuates the black peppercorn aspects that are only hinted at in Sofie. (“Pepe nero” is Italian for “black pepper”.) Needless to say, this was a great match for the steak, and would be a good accompaniment for any grilled meat course.

Dessert was pecan pie and bourbon infused maple ice cream. The beer paired with it was Pere Jacques, a strong (8.7 % abv) Belgian style abbey ale, with a nose of brown sugar, raisin and plums. Although the taste and finish are also on the sweet side, I didn’t think it was a good pairing for the rich dessert. Belgian yeasts tend to eat some of the sugars that otherwise give other big beers like stouts some body and sweetness, resulting in a thinner body than one would expect; the yeast also throws off some spicy notes which don’t tend to play well with sweet foods. Rather than pecan pie or ice cream, I would have preferred to try this beer with a selection of cheeses. Excellent dessert, excellent beer, but I think the marriage of the two was forced.

Although neither Pepe Nero or Pere Jacques are available in Ontario, an order form placed strategically beside each plate gave us all a one-time opportunity to order some.

And then just when we thought dinner was over, we were told that there was one more offering — a small sample of Goose Island’s much lauded Bourbon County Imperial Stout. This magical elixir, aged for 12 to 14 months in bourbon barrels, was first brewed in 1992 to commemorate Goose Island’s 1,000th batch of beer. Twenty years later, it is now rated one of the top 5 beers of the world on the user-driven RateBeer website. The intense nose of this black beer speaks of vanilla, bourbon and booze. The taste is likewise intense — roasted, charred notes nimbly intertwining with the sweet booziness of bourbon. The mouthfeel is heavy, oily and viscous, the finish long and sweet. This was the beer that should have been paired with dessert — or perhaps not, since it demands the entire stage for its soliloqy. (It was a bit too intense for Elaine, so I gallantly offered to drink her sample, an act I regretted the next morning.)

All in all, a very enjoyable evening — incredible food from Nota Bene, and a very pleasant wander through some Goose Island offerings. Others may argue about Goose Island’s corporate management, but clearly their brewers are just getting the job done with some classy takes on some classic styles.

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One Comment on “Food and beer dinner: Goose Island”

  1. Chris Says:

    Sounds like a fantastic meal. I wonder what I have to do to get invited to one of these things…

    Pepe Nero was actually available at the LCBO this year, though seemingly in lower quantities than Matilda or Sofie.


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