On a wild hair I decided to attend the third annual Beer Bloggers’ Conference. I am very, very glad I did. I’ve got probably half a dozen posts to tell you all about it. For those of you who already live in the Midwest, and have had some of these extraordinary beers, sit back, feel smug, because I’m going to talk about how vibrant and creative the Midwest craft brewing scene is, and how nice everybody was to us. For those of you who don’t, I apologize, I’m going to talk about some beers that just aren’t available outside very limited areas.
The pre-conference gathering of about forty of us was in Chicago on a Thursday evening. I had hoped to have an afternoon to spend in the Windy City, but it was not to be. Flights were late, got bumped, I managed to get checked in in time to catch a cab for the dinner at Goose Island Brewery (Goose Island Clybourne, the brewpub, as opposed to their production facility, which is now owned by Anheuser Busch. The brewpub is still independent, and makes something like 50 beers annually.). I shared a hotel room with Lindsay Burton of www.adventuresinbeerland.net (yay for cutting costs); she and I arrived perhaps ten minutes ahead of the bus carrying everyone else – we were staying in a different hotel from the main group. That meant we got a few minutes alone with their Head Brewer, Jared Rouben. I confess I was a little starstruck; I remember that we talked about hops and a book about English country wines and meads. Lindsay got a pint of their gluten-free Queen-oa, which was fruity and bright – I’d order it again in a heartbeat. I always feel a little guilty ordering a dietary special that I don’t need – I’m not gluten intolerant – but Queen-oa is worth revisiting.
Goose Island had set aside a raised dining area away from the hubbub of the brewpub for all of us – they seated forty or fifty people from the bloggers’ conference; I didn’t get an exact count. Jared talked about the ingredients and style ethic at Goose Island, then turned us over to their Education Coordinator Suzanne, a former cheesemonger, and Mark Mahoney, Goose Island’s Communications Manager (and social media guru – met a lot of those at this event; beer is definitely New Media). Suzanne was a cheerful, even bubbly woman who introduced each course, explaining the selection of food with beer. I had gotten their Nut Brown when we arrived, not knowing how quickly we’d be seated (it’s a little roast-heavy for my taste). I abandoned it swiftly for the cool, clean glass of Sophie we were given as a welcome. This is now one of my new favorite beers, making it onto my very selective “beers I prefer” list. While Sophie’s being brewed, they siphon 20% of her wort into wine barrels, then stored 3 months and mixed back in. 40 lbs. of peeled oranges (there’s apparently quite the orange-peeling machine) go into each batch. Sophie has a medium body and dry finish with a little fruit tartness but not so much you pucker up. Since Goose Island is heavy into Belgian styles, having only a little pucker is a mercy. They served refreshing glasses of Sophie with a just a bite of fresh chevre, which was ideal. I noticed right away that I was the only one with a notebook out – everyone else either has better memory than mine, or (more likely) they were just relaxing and enjoying.
I’m two beers in and we haven’t started dinner yet. The first course was a slender bit of Rushing Waters
trout atop Iron Creek heirloom tomatoes (a local CSA), local chevre with balsamic vinegar (the really good, pungent, thick kind) and a glass of Lolita. Lolita is one of the Three Sisters, and we had them all – Lolita, Madame rose, and Matilda. Lolita is barrel aged (they have a whole barrel warehouse!) and very tart – she’s aged in bourbon and wine barrels with fresh Michigan raspberries for 6-10 months. This beer had pucker factor. I could really taste the pediococcus, lactobacillus and brettanomyces that went into her makeup.The second course was Gunthorp Farms pork belly pieces mixed in with housemade pappardelle pasta, tossed with rosemary, jus, and “camembert foam”, which when mixed in with the pasta made just enough
sauce for flavor. Matilda did a great job of balancing the bits of fatty pork belly. Matilda is a Belgian style pale ale. Greg Hall, son of founder John Hall, apparently went to Belgium and fell in love with the beer, so Goose Island beers are often fashioned after Orval‘s. Sweet and spicy young (which is how I like her best), she’s fermented twice, the second time with brettanomyces. The third course involved Slagel Farms lamb, pork fat poached fingerling potatoes, haricot vert, and jus. I assure you my arteries didn’t feel a thing. Juliet came along, rosy with a big sour taste. Juliet is a wild beer they’ve been making for about 2 years now, including Michigan blackberries and 10-14 months aging in cabernet barrels.
Dessert was flourless chocolate cake, seedling cherries full of rich flavor, and a small scoop of Black Dog malted gelato, accompanied by the third of the Three Sisters, Madame Rose. She’s named after Rose Heikman, the head brewer at the cult Belgian brewery Leifman’s (which has shut down their website “for the summer” and invite you to meet them on Facebook). Ten barrels of Madame Rose were separated out for the brewpub; the rest went to national distribution. I remember thinking she went well with the dessert, which was delicious, but that you wouldn’t catch me dead with a glass of Madame Rose by herself. She’s an absolutely beautiful color, and as sour as sour can be.Now is probably a good time to say that being part of the beer media world doesn’t suck.
We were given a very short tour by Brad, who took us back to their barrel aging area. Goose Island has
many initiatives: there’s the barrel-aging project, the chef collaboration, the farmers market project, lots of small lots of beer experiments. One beer sample is selected every Thursday and a complimentary taste is offered up at 6pm to whoever’s in the brewpub. I could see becoming a regular. Goose Island is particularly interested in brewing beer for food, and invites fine chefs like Rick Bayless to create a dish that Goose Island will then brew a beer to match. Goose Island has worked with parsnip beers, truffle beers, rhubarb raisin beer, and a rhubarb saison. One raspberry kolsch (taken off tap just as we arrived, alas) was apparently memorable. They’ll put beer in different kinds of barrels (cabernet vs bourbon, for example), date it, and wait to see what happens. If you love Belgian style funky, sometimes sour beer and are a bit adventurous, clearly this is the brewpub for you.Goose Island had very groovy messenger bags filled with swag waiting for us after the tour, including bottles of Sophie and Pere Jacques to bring home. I felt honored; they’d gone to a lot of trouble to make a beautiful, memorable evening for us, and fed us elegantly and well. Goose Island, I’m not a huge lover of Belgian style sour ales, but I’m very impressed with you.
But wait, we weren’t done yet. Not by a long shot. Kristin Stroud of Beer + Running = Happiness and Jessica Murphy of GirlsLikeBeerToo organized an after-dinner pub crawl for us. Outside a party bus was waiting, complete with disco lights, a beer bong (which we did not use), and stripper poles (which unfortunately some of the guys did use). We made three more stops after that sumptuous dinner.
Peace Brewery and Pizzeria, which saved a section for us with a window that looked out right at street level (very entertaining), where I had their Golden Arm German-style kolsch, a “good beer” version of Miller that I bet sells like hotcakes (I couldn’t resist trying it, I have fond memories of childhood horror tales, “Who’s got my golden arm?”).
Stop two was Revolution Brewing. All the tap handles looked like raised clenched fists (you can see a better picture on Dale Miskimins’ blog, SodaKBeer).
Revolution’s space was airy and open. Someone spent a fortune on woodwork and artful lighting behind wooden panels. The books on the dark wood shelves were a mixed lot, some revolution-appropriate and some not. I got their Rye Stout, which smells strongly of coffee and has a wonderful roast balance. Their Bastille saison was easy drinking golden goodness. Eugene Porter was heavily roasted, reminded me of how Starbucks over-roasts their coffee beans (yes, I’m in the camp that thinks they roast their beans too fast and burn them).The last stop – and I almost didn’t make it – was to Haymarket Pub and Brewery.
I had Haymarket’s Indignant Templeton Rye Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout – thank goodness I took notes so I could get all that name right – which was so sweet that I found it too sweet, something a woman with a sweet tooth doesn’t say lightly. The fellow bloggers at my table liked it a lot. There was a porter that was smooth and lovely, very nicely balanced. Haymarket hosts the Drinking and Writing Theatre, which intrigues the heck out of me. At the end of the evening I wasn’t sorry I was stayi9ng at a different hotel as everyone else – for one thing, ours was nicer, and if there had been yet more partying in the halls I’d never have made the bus the next morning. For at 8am there we were, bushy-tailed if not bright-eyed, ready for the next stage…stay tuned, campers, for Beer Bloggers Conference #2, the trip to Indianapolis and Lafayette Brewing.