Goose Island Lolita and Her Sour Sisters
Brewery: Goose Island Beer Co.
Style: American Wild Ale
ABV: 9 percent
"We live not only in a world of thoughts, but also in a world of things. Words without experience are meaningless."
― Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Eloquent, no? It's not often I get to quote literature in this space, but this excerpt, taken from Nabokov's 1955 novel about a middle-aged professor who's attracted to a young girl, is especially apt. One, because it's the name of the beer (convenient!) and two, because the thoughts and words you'll find about Chicago's Goose Island Beer Co. are meaningless; it's the experience of the beer that matters.
After A-B InBev -- the brewery giant that owns Budweiser, Corona, Stella Artois, and more -- bought Goose Island for nearly $39 million in 2011, many craft beer drinkers wrote them off completely. Their argument: The local guys had sold out to the big, bad brewers and become part of the craft-destroying machine. A-B would push Goose Island to expand quickly into more and more markets, the naysayers prognosticated, and the quality of their beers inevitably would drop. Two years hence, whether or not the beers taste different is a matter of opinion, but expansion has definitely occurred -- the company grew more than 50 percent in 2012, expanding into new parts of New England and some Mid-Atlantic states as it did. All of Goose Island's top-selling 312 Urban Wheat brewed is now brewed at an A-B facility in New York, while many of the regular releases like Honker's Ale and IPA are brewed at Redhook in Washington.
This setup has drawn the ire of some hardcore beer geeks, but it's benefited the brewers by allowing them to focus less on boring everyday brews and innovate more. Goose Island's breweries throughout Chicago are putting some magical stuff into bottles, and it's now that our opening quote rings most true -- because all the negative words you might find about Goose Island mean nothing once you actually put the beer in your mouth.
Consider, if you will, the quadruplet of large-format Goose Island sours now making their way to Arizona shelves. Here we have Halia, Hawaiian for "remembrance of a loved one," a saison aged nine months in white wine barrels with 12,000 pounds of fresh peaches sourced from a family farm in Michigan. There we have Gillian, an amuse bouche-inspired brew that brings together 10,000 pounds of strawberries, 4,000 pounds of honey and white pepper. Next to these two can be found Juliet, named for the sister of the owner of Cantillon Brewery in Belgium and aged in for 8 months or more in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels with 9,000 pounds of blackberries. And with them, the youngest and most precocious sister: Lolita.
Poured into a tulip, Lolita shimmers a rosy orange -- as she should, having been aged in wine barrels atop pounds and pounds of locally sourced raspberries. A short-lived head of pinkish-tan bubbles quickly pops away quickly to nothingness. It's a nice color, but a pretty weak showing from the bubbles on a Belgian pale ale.
Fortunately, the nose steps up to support it. Raspberry, honey and caramel mix with more acidic balsamic vinaigrette, cherries and red wine. The wood-aging shows itself in the form of buttery oak and vanilla, capping off the smooth, deep aroma. The vinous oak barrels lead the charge in the flavor, and the subtly tart raspberries also make a stronger showing. Sweet cherries blend with notes of toffee in the back, while wild yeast lends the beer moderate sourness complemented by hints of vinegar and funk. Bubbles massage the tongue lightly even as the tang imparted by the wild yeast gets more biting, nearing lip-smacking sourness near the end of the glass.
Does this sound like a beer made by soulless brewers interested only in the bottom line? Do any of these beers? We live in a world of thoughts, but also a world of things. Experience them, then judge.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.