When Anheuser-Busch (now merged with drinks conglomerate InBev to form Anheuser-Busch InBev) bought a stake in Goose Island Brewing Company, intending to distribute the Chicago brewery’s lineup to the rest of the country, beer geeks worried that this excellent brewery and brewpub would get dumbed down or, worse, stripped of most of the interesting beers they put out. To A-B’s credit, these things did not happen. Goose Island still runs its brewpubs as always, more or less, and churns out their signature Honker’s Ale (an innocuous red ale) and IPA (a fine example of the English-style India Pale Ale) for seemingly the whole country.
In between, Goose is still able to brew special, limited-edition beers for the geeks. The 2010 edition of Matilda, sitting in my glass right now, is one such experimental beer that worked so well, it’s brewed every year. Matilda is described as a “Belgian-style Pale Ale,” and it’s apt. Belgian yeasts create a distinctly different flavor profile than other yeasts, even within the same species, and combined with traditional Belgian beer ingredients (special malts, for instance), the beer takes on a flavor easily distinguished from your average American ale.
Where Goose Island goes one better is through using Brettanomyces yeast to referment Matilda in the bottle. Brettanomyces yeast works slowly — the bottle notes that the bottle’s contents will continue to develop for five more years – but it turns the aroma and flavor of a beer into something quite different from the average beer. It’s variously described as horseblanket, barnyard, gym socks, funk, but all these terms are meant as good things. I think it’s a “you have to taste it” sort of experience, and it’s definitely an acquired taste, but it opens up so many complex flavors. If you’ve yet to experience this yeast’s effect on beer, you’ll just have to trust me.
I poured Matilda into a Belgian goblet, just because I like the shape. The bottle recommends a tulip, but really, it’s all about a glass that can collect the aroma reasonably well. It’s a clear, pale amber, topped by a finger’s width of off-white head that sticks around briefly before dropping out to a thin, patchy layer. The beer certainly smells “Belgian”, with a nose of candi sugar, and it’s a little tarter, I think; without the standard hopping of American pale ales, the haylike maltiness comes through a little more strongly. Alas, the funkiness I expect from the Brettanomyces yeast is really not present here, which is a little disappointing, but I wasn’t about to sit on this beer for any real length of time.
Then I take a sip, and aha! I’m assaulted by a complex blend of that signature funk alongside a sugary sweetness, with a dose of alcohol and a malty component. And hey, there’s a bit of a hop bite in there too, a nod to the Americanness of this beer, though it’s relegated to merely bittering the beer, not flavoring it. That funkiness lingers into the finish alongside a bit of the bitterness, all carried by the malty sweetness. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but in this beer (while young, anyhow), the flavors are not overpowering. At 7% alcohol by volume, it’s on the strong side, but polishing off the entire bottle isn’t going to tax your liver dramatically.
This Matilda was bottled January 15, 2010, and really, it’ll keep changing for as many years as you’d care to hold on to it in reasonable conditions. Certainly another year on, it won’t quite taste like I’ve described. I paid $10 for a 22-ounce bottle at a Gristedes, and while that isn’t a bad price, it’s likely a bit cheaper at a beer distributor. This may be a challenging beer to wrap your taste buds around, but I think you’ll be rewarded for your efforts.