Goose Island Brewery

goose island brewery chicagoPhoto Credit

Through out my brewery series there has been one glaring omission when speaking of the top beer dogs of the city. Goose Island Brewery is not just the first and largest micro-brewery to dominate Chicago’s beer scene since 1988, but they also represent a handful of breweries across the country that proved in the late 90’s and early 2000’s that they could distribute craft beer regionally and still compete with the massive corporate swill that’s being dolled out one football commercial at a time. Let’s consider the playing field; Anheuser-Busch is 300 miles south and MillerCoors is 90 miles north (though Miller’s head quarters are on Wacker Drive). Chicago is sandwiched between two of the biggest beer companies in the world, and Goose Island Brewery took a bite out of that sandwich with nearly half of Chicago’s craft beer sales (ironically Boston’s Sam Adams currently holds more). Jim Hall and his son, current brewmaster Greg Hall, managed to accomplish this with two brewpubs and one of the first publicly displayed brewing systems. The brew pub scene in the 90’s felt more like a restaurant fad, but Goose has weathered that climate into the age of craft beers and ale connoisseurs. With smaller and far more eccentric breweries popping up all over Chicagoland, I will take a step back from the Chicago brewery that started it all and reflect on what their beer means to the city.

It’s hard to call Goose Island a microbrewery these days even if it’s primarily a Chicago thing. Honkers Ale was always their signature beer and proved to be a work horse when it came to weaning North-siders off Miller in favor of something local. It helps that as Goose has grown Honkers in turn got cheaper and cheaper. Overall I find it to be a lager man’s ale, staying light on the hops with clean malt profile and a decent copper finish. But the beer world is constantly evolving and tastes have grown more particular, both for “the masses” and for the “beer snobs”.

Goose answered this evolution in 2003 with Matilda, a Belgian Strong Pale Ale that was offered by bars of sophistication at first and then slowly became more available. In my mind, this was when Goose Island first told the world they weren’t fucking around. At that point Belgian beer was a high gravity skill left mostly to… well, the Belgians. Its ferocious yeast content and tendency to age in the bottle makes the style a hard thing to mass produce. I seriously doubt Goose Island is distributing their line of Belgian beers very far beyond Chicago but they seem to make a lot of the stuff for us.

They followed up this success around the same time with the Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. Frankly, this beer changed my life. They were one of the first breweries to bottle their beer from a bourbon barrel and the concept has done nothing but explode since then. The Illinois Craft Brewers Guild just held its 8th Annual Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer and it was reportedly more popular then ever. There’s hardly a craft brewery out there right now that isn’t experimenting with their established beers in this fashion.

But just when Goose Island seemed comfortable enough with their mainstream beers to dance with the more dynamic tastes, along came 312. Honkers would very quickly become the forgotten first born in favor of this immensely successful “Urban Wheat Ale.” And why shouldn’t it? Wheat ale is a very popular beer style amongst the summer partiers who like to keep their beer light but actually have a taste bud or two. I hardly see anyone dropping orange peels into their Blue Moons anymore and thank god for that (it’s owned by Coors for those not in the know). After three years 312 is Goose Island’s most popular selling beer.

Since then Goose Island has finessed its timed release of craft beers, recently unleashing an entire series of Belgian and Saison Farmhouse ales in 22 ounce bottles all at once. They were all pretty good but the clear winner was Sofie, this fluffy citrusy queen that cleared off the liquor store shelves for the first few weeks. Such well-crafted distribution of course was the result of a little-known deal with the devil. In 2006 Goose Island hooked up with Anheuser-Busch’s distribution network. For a hefty cut into their profits and a small piece of their soul, Goose Island now manages to distribute in 15 states and a few spots across the pond. So far their ambitions haven’t seemed to undermine the quality of their beer.

Of course, my review would not be complete without a visit to their brewpub. Unfortunately the main brewery, where the majority of the beer is produced, is (in most cases) not open to the public. So a trip to one of the brewpubs will have to suffice. I’ve been to both their Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville locations on several occasions and I much prefer the original on Clybourn Ave. But when you’re choosing between a battle with drunken Cubs fans or the clusterfuck of Clybourn retail, why split hairs? And their original location has improved over the years with an expansion of the bar and changes to their menu. I’ve never found the food to be particularly good here, and though it was decent this time around it was still a notch above boring.

The beer selection at the brewpub is slightly overwhelming for someone trying to assemble tasting notes on everything, but their menu does a fine job categorizing the beer in taste profiles. I would call it a guide for amateurs except when many of the beer descriptions boldly include the hop ingredients I can see they’re catering to the true aficionados as well. While not everything they make is offered on a given night, Goose Island has managed to cover almost every beer style imaginable with the full gamut of lagers and ales (all beer is either a lager or an ale). The highlights on this journey for me were their German Marzen, their darkly colored Altbier, their unsweet brown ale dubbed Foxy, and their Frankenporter which was as dark and malty as a Porter should be with some serious hop notes. The inventiveness displayed in the Frankenporter and in a fantastic new lavender induced Blonde Ale called Blonde Rascal are the sort of skills that will keep Goose Island on top of Chicago’s craft beer market.

So maybe Goose Island isn’t a true microbrewery anymore. In a country where sales are down on almost everything, Goose Island is a testament to the growth of quality beer and the leaps and bounds the national market has made. You might even say Goose Island has made Chicago fit for these other small time bottlers; sowing the seeds of good taste for fellow breweries to graze. I, for one, salute that big fat bird. It’s recognized products like theirs that compose the fabric of Chicago’s image and formulate the lingering consistency of my Chicago pride.

Goose Island Beer Company — Main Brewery
1800 W. Fulton Street

1800 N. Clybourn Avenue

Tours and Tastings:
Sundays at 1:30pm, 3pm, and 4:30pm
Duration: 60-90 minutes
Reservations are required. Please R.S.V.P. by calling us at (312) 915.0071.

Beer to Go:
Six Packs, 650ml bottles
64oz Growlers
1/6 Barrel Kegs, 1/2 Barrel kegs (Call for selection)

3535 N. Clark

Beer to Go:
Six Packs and 750ml bottles
64oz Growlers

David Frankel McLean

About David Frankel McLean

I’ve been thinking philosophically about Chicago since I was jaywalking the streets at the age of 10. I don’t root for both baseball teams and I don’t put Ketchup on my hot dogs. When someone says they’re a Chicagoan they are speaking of a heritage and a doctrine, not just a location. What that doctrine is I’m not entirely sure, it’s constantly changing with the growth of the city and I’ll spend my entire life trying to figure it out.

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