Handcrafted and Corporate: The Experiment That Is Goose Island
How Goose Island brewmaster Brett Porter keeps his focus on the art of beer while experiencing rapid national growth.
by Ryan Ingwersen
Check out the podcast with Brett Porter here.
If you thought that the real beer nerds who get excited about both honoring tradition and diving into experimentation were working for the smaller upstart breweries, then you should speak with Brett Porter. Just ask him about Hallertau hops or Klages barley strains or the reverence he holds for everyone from craft luminaries like Ken Grossman to local peers like Pete Crowley to the actual hop farmers themselves. Talk to him about shaking Mulberry trees in the Chicago parkway and experimenting with unpredictable yeast strains and the possibility of introducing Pinot barrels into their warehouse. Porter is still just as excited to be a part of the craft beer industry as he was 25 years ago.
We had a chance to sit down with the man himself for our ABV Chicago podcast, ask him questions, and drink beer while he spoke with genuine passion about finding himself in his dream job.
Brewmaster at Goose Island Beer Company since 2011, Porter wants to assert that the brewery is just as handcrafted and experimental as the younger breweries while acknowledging its growing national footprint in the craft beer market.
“We’re a very interesting experiment. We’re doing very esoteric things, and we’re also able to unleash a wave of interesting beer into the marketplace.”
To Porter, Chicago’s ever-growing craft beer industry is exciting, despite being a bit hard to keep up with.
“I really like the booming beer scene in Chicago. But I have yet to meet one person that has a complete handle on what is happening.”
He admires the work being done by brewers at Haymarket, 3 Floyds, Une Année, and former Goose employee Wil Turner at Revolution. But how does he feel about Lagunitas building a larger craft brewery on his turf and how that might alter the impact of Goose Island?
“I’m very excited about that. I’m astounded at the growth of their IPA. I look at industry numbers and they’re absolutely doing something right. But I welcome that: any brewery, large or small, to Chicago. And I feel like one thing I know for sure is that the diaspora from Goose is a big part of why Chicago is what it is. And there are people all over the country who are making big brewing decisions that got their start or worked here at Goose.”
A native Oregonian, Porter now sees Chicago as his true home, and a place where he has found the most inspiration to take creative risks as a brewer and feed on inspiration from other craft brewers.
“What I’m amazed about is that there’s so much good beer out there that you can find something at almost every place that you will find interesting, like to drink, or learn something from. It doesn’t matter if the place has been open for 30 days or 30 years. There’s something to learn from every single brewery out there.”
During the course of our podcast recording, Brett was not only generous with his time – over 3 hours – but generous with his beer as well. The first beer we tasted is one that thousands of people will be imbibing this coming weekend in Chicago’s Union Park.
Goose Island will again be sponsoring the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago during the weekend of July 18th. They’ll be continuing the tradition of brewing beers specifically for the festival: last year saw Forcone (an early version of their Endless IPA) and their Run The Jewels collaboration. For one of the specialty beers for the fest, the staff at Pitchfork provided Goose with some ideas of what they’d like in a beer, and together they came up with a lager called Recommended, which Porter calls a “riff on a German pils” made with the Augustiner lager yeast strain and lightly hopped for aroma.
“The primary goal here was interesting drinkability, and we kept the alcohol down a bit. The Pitchfork people are happy with it; I’m happy with it.”
Another beer he’s exceptionally proud of is this year’s release of their Belgian-style sour brown ale with cherries, Madame Rose, which he calls, “the best wine barrel-aged beer we’ve made yet.” But as many sour beer producers will testify, some unplanned experimentation made it what it became. After a year in the wine barrels, they were not pleased with it, so they added more sour cherries and “a brewery-made lacto culture to sour it up a bit more.” What results is a yeast concoction that Brett says is very close to the Roeselare Blend, a blend of yeasts used in many world-class Belgian lambics and gueuzes to enhance the sour cherry quality while adding dryness.
“It’s controlled mayhem, particularly in the wine barrel warehouse.”
In addition to the Montmorency cherries from Mick Klug Farms in St. Joseph, Michigan, subsequent batches of Madame Rose, which will be released “whenever we decide it’s done” will also contain Schaerbeek cherries from Seedling Farms from South Haven, Michigan. Schaerbeek cherries are used to obtain a unique sweetness along with a sour flavor found in many traditional Belgian styles.
Now here’s the part many you have scrolled through this article looking for. What can Brett Porter share with us about this year’s lineup of Bourbon County Brand Stout? Would he have to remain tight-lipped under some company policy to avoid stepping on the toes of some marketing rollout? Would we be releasing a podcast with hours of redacted recording due to the legal team of AB-InBev telling us to guard this sensitive material? Nope. He just told us.
Over glasses of last year’s Backyard Rye version of the Bourbon County Brand Stout, Porter divulged the not-so-guarded secret of this year’s variant. After being repeatedly approached with the same request in cities all over the country, Porter finally said, “enough is enough” with a not-so-well-hidden grin. This year we’ll see the return of Bourbon County Vanilla.
“Everyone wants the stuff, so we decided we’d bend.”
But don’t expect the same beer as was released in 2010. “We’re going to throw away the damn recipe book. We’re going to do a better job than we did before.”
They did extensive research and hands-on exploration of the capabilities of the vanilla bean before deciding on the right mixture for the stout. Early on, Porter was leaning towards the notoriously-expensive Tahitian vanilla bean.
“Expense be spared – we don’t care what the stuff costs. We’re going to pick the best stuff.”
In the end, they preferred the flavor of Mexican and Madagascar vanilla beans, $50,000 worth of which are “on the premises”, he lightly boasted.
The 2014 iteration of the Bourbon County coffee variant will feature Rwandan coffee beans that were chosen with the help of their longtime collaborators (and neighbors), Intelligentsia, for whom Porter has tremendous admiration.
“They understand that telling a story is an important part of the product. And they also understand that where they choose to do business can have a profound effect on peoples’ lives.”
For the selection of this year’s version of the coffee stout, Porter was committed to choosing the best available bean, even though one choice was more sentimental. “We were worried that we were picking the Rwandan coffee because we liked the story so much. Talk about lives changing, there. [Intelligentsia] has done a great deal to revive the Rwandan coffee industry.”
In a blind tasting with another favored bean, they found that the Rwandan variety truly was the better selection. “Our hearts and taste buds were going in the same direction.”
The choice is one that Porter believes will greatly satiate the legions of BCBCS lovers. “The bar has been raised very, very high, and we’re duty-bound to do as much work on that beer to make sure that it’s interesting and stays fresh.”
On the topic of high bars, Porter revealed that this year’s Proprietor’s variant of Bourbon County will likely eclipse the highly-regarded toasted coconut version from last year. This year’s version will include unrefined Mexican sugar that’s made into a syrup with coconut water, Cassia bark (which is basically cinnamon with richer flavor) and Ugandan Chocolate nibs.
“It’ll be like adding some interesting staves to a bourbon barrel because these flavors are consonant with the flavor of bourbon. It’s going to be a stunningly good beer.”
Another thing that should get patient Bourbon County fans excited is the somewhat-distant, somewhat-return of the elusive Bourbon County Rare, which Brett admits won’t really be the same beer ever again. For this version, they’ve obtained older barrels – some filled in 1978 – that Porter says will “make the Pappy barrels seem like youngsters.” The barrels have been filled, and they plan on holding on to them for a few years before releasing anything in bottles. At this point, he’s not sure of a name, but he’s certain it won’t be called “Rarer,” which sounds like something you’d slur out after a few glasses of Rare.
Other beers coming soon from Goose Island include their next Fulton and Wood release, a Pomegranate Berliner Weisse tentatively named “Lilith.” They are planning on doing a 50-barrel fresh-hop beer this year as well. The Rambler IPA will be widely-released in August, featuring some U.S.-grown Hallertau hops and other interesting combinations brewed from AB-InBev’s New York location. Coming in September in 4-packs will be The Muddy, a big-ABV imperial stout with “a couple of interesting sugars and brewer’s licorice.”
Despite this obvious attention to quality and regular forays into major risk-taking, Goose Island still has to step outside of the shade cast upon them by those that think they spiritually “sold out” to AB-InBev. But Porter sees the acquisition as an opportunity to do what any craft brewer would do if they could: take advantage of a gigantic company’s access to the best hops and barley available anywhere in the world and make spectacular beer.
“As long as I’m still putting around here, I’m going to keep using these incredible resources and pockets of enthusiasm in this larger company that want to do these cool projects.”
Getting these resources into the hands of a brewer this passionate about where beer has been and where it is going should be a source of excitement for any craft beer drinker.
“It’s important for brewers to look back as well as forward. And we like to do both. You can say what you want about Goose, but we are all in.”