The craft beer scene is a fickle beast. Advocates can embrace a brewery for years, only to scoff at them the moment they break bad by joining the ranks of the macro-brew players. Witness Goose Island, the Chicago-based brewery that was one of the first to start experimenting with barrel-aging beers back in the early ‘90s. This experimentation won them droves of fans—until they sold 58% of the brewery to Anheuser-Busch. We’re never one to criticize a craft brewery for making good on years of quiet labor, but others rolled their eyes at the move.
Opinions on selling out vary, but the saving grace of this move was that it provided the breathing room needed to expand their barrel-aging program and make more off-the-beaten-path brews. And having their distribution anchored to a major player also makes it a lot easier for Goose Island fans to find those once-elusive bottles.
The Gillian is one of the latest to hit the market. Inspired by an amuse bouche made by one of the brewer’s wives, the beer strives to introduce white pepper, honey, and strawberries into a wild farmhouse ale. And it mostly succeeds.
It pours a deep straw color with a medium head and an almost opaque clarity. On the nose, all the ingredients are noticeable: hay, honey, a hint of funk, spicy pepper, and a big bouquet of strawberries that originates from the 40 to 50 pounds of the fruit used per barrel. But the first taste almost betrays that initial expectation. Rather than being cloyingly sweet, it comes across bright and lively, with tinges of sugar complimented by a tart funkiness. Rather than playing the lead, the strawberries deliver a steady undercurrent of sweetness, leading to a crisp, dry finish where the pepper and wood-aging announce themselves. The use of Amarillo hops is refreshingly subdued, and though it boasts a potent 9.5% ABV—stronger than most farmhouse ales—it doesn’t come across as particularly boozy.
Gillian joins the other “sisters” in Goose Island’s barrel-aged beer line, which includes the Lolita, Sofie, Madame Rose, and—also released this year—the peach-brewed Halila. Each have decidedly modest labels that almost belie the beers’ complexity; the deep red and the subtle strawberry graphic behind the graceful lettering on the Gillian’s label serve as the only visual indication that there’s some interesting stuff going on here. As with all of their barrel-aged releases, you can cellar for up to five years. If you manage to hold onto the bottle till spring, it may be the perfect beer to accompany a hot, lazy summer night. By then the more sour elements from the barrel-aging should also become more pronounced.
As drinkable as this beer comes across, the one moment of pause may be its price ($22), which feels a bit expensive. Maybe we can at least blame Anheuser-Busch for that.
Brewery: Goose Island
City: Chicago, IL
Style: Farmhouse Ale
Availability: Limited in 762ML bottles