Beer and Food: Goose Island and Nota Bene 20

The other day, I was invited to a lunch launching a couple of Goose Island’s beers in Canada. Specifically, Matilda and Sofie. The Goose Island property is a contentious one, and to attempt to relate the details of the lunch without at least acknowledging some basic facts about the brand and about their perception would reek of incompletion.

As most beer nerds (and I suspect relatively few other people) know, Goose Island was bought out by AB InBev a couple of years ago for about 40 million bucks. Some of the existing personnel have changed over. John Hall, the original owner, stepped down as CEO. Greg Hall, who was the brewmaster is now making craft cider.

There was outcry about the purchase. People swore up and down that they’d never drink the stuff again. Then there was an announcement that some of the beer would be brewed in upstate New York. Again, people more or less lost their minds.

It has been about two years since the takeover, and for better or worse, I had never managed to get to Chicago when it was under the old ownership. I have no platonic ideal of what the product ought to be to compare it to. For me, it holds no sentimental value. I feel like I’m relatively well equipped to talk about the beer and the food that was paired with it without a whole lot of bias.

So, that being said, let’s have a look at what’s going on here.

I'll say one thing for goblet style glasses: they lend your beer a sense of gravitas. A sippy cup would simply not cut it.

I’ll say one thing for goblet style glasses: they lend your beer a sense of gravitas. A sippy cup would simply not cut it.

The launch took place at Nota Bene at lunchtime, and the beer and food pairings were designed by their chef, David Lee. It seems that the beers are more or less exclusive to Nota Bene until the end of April (although, I have heard reports of them popping up in other quarters.) According to a representative for AB InBev, Matilda and Sofie should hit liquor stores the week of April 29th, with other brands following in the nearish future.

The concept of a beer launch in Toronto that is restricted to a restaurant, as opposed to a pub or bar is something of a rarity. I don’t recall that happening before. Even a single location launch is practically unheard of. I believe this to be because of the specialized nature of the Goose Island Vintage Ales. I’m sure that you could drink them by themselves, but they cry out for food. This is not because there is some hole in the flavour profile that needs to be filled, but rather because there is so much nuance throughout. Food teases things out of them.

Take Sofie, for instance, a Belgian Style Farmhouse Ale. It’s a Saison with brettanomyces and it’s aged in neutral oak barrels for three months. Neutral oak, as it was explained, essentially means that the barrels were used for wine at one point, but have been re-used frequently enough that they now only impart oak flavour. The aroma is huge with pear and pepper and tropical fruit and wheat and the mildest touch of barnyard. On the palate it diffuses into ripe peach and kiwi and passion fruit and honey. It finishes dry and is dangerously more-ish. The carbonation is vivacious.P1020516

It was paired here with Poached Nova Scotia Lobster with a Citrus Vinaigrette, Pineapple-Vanilla Reduction, A Foam made from the beer itself and um… Crispies.

Now, the lobster is rich and the carbonation cuts right through that, but there’s nothing particularly revelatory about pairing seafood with saison. Where David Lee’s pairing shines is on the understanding of the periphery. It might seem overly elaborate to include a foam and a reduction and a vinaigrette on the same plate, but all of them hit different tones in the beer. The Pineapple-Vanilla reduction is especially clever because if there’s even a mild note of vanillin from the barrels, it will highlight it. Not mentioned in the brief on the menu was the bed of what I believe were enoki mushrooms. I had never considered it previously, but there is probably some umami component in a bottle conditioned beer that resonates there, creating a detail in pairing that is somehow more about commonality in mouthfeel than flavour. A trick I had never seen before.

Matilda is a Belgian Pale Ale, but no less complex. The aroma I picked up off of it, aside from the cloves and some other baking spice which likely derive from the yeast were stewed apple and possibly persimmon. The hops are Saaz and Styrian Golding, and there’s this quality of depth to it reminiscent of some English Pale Ales which I can really best describe as forest floor; that hint of herbal dampness in brisk autumn.

Matilda is so much clearer than other belgian pale ales I've tried that at first I assumed that it would be more like a Belgian Amber. I was wrong.

Matilda is so much clearer than other belgian pale ales I’ve tried that at first I assumed that it would be more like a Belgian Amber. I was wrong.

It was paired with a Suckling Pig and Boudin Noir tart with Maple-Smoked Bacon, Mushrooms, Arugula and Truffle Vinaigrette.

See how the arugula is reminiscent of Oak leaves? Isn't that clever? I don't know if he intended it that way, but I'm given to understand that authorial intent died with modernism.

See how the arugula is reminiscent of Oak leaves? Isn’t that clever? I don’t know if he intended it that way, but I’m given to understand that authorial intent died with modernism.

Looking back now at the plating, I wonder whether David Lee came to the same conclusion I did: Matilda is an Autumn. From the plating up through the pastry to the mushrooms to the staggering variety of pork, he’s practically recreating that forest floor, layer by layer. The suckling pig is (and I hate to use the word) unctuous and the boudin is surprisingly light. The bacon and crackling are, I suspect, just there to round out the concept of the pig rooting for truffles. It is not so much a pairing of beer and food as an evocation of October.

You can see why they chose Nota Bene. David Lee should really be doing this kind of thing more frequently, as he clearly has some insights into how pairing beer and food should work.

As to the Goose Island beers, let me say this, if you’re concerned about the takeover: Both Matilda and Sofie are lovely, complex beers. If you’ve had them before, I would advise to seriously consider should you find there to have been a decrease in quality, whether it is imagined. If you haven’t had them before, you’re in for a treat.

As for the launch at Nota Bene, I have to suggest to you that I have not seen anyone pair to the whole flavour profile of a beer like David Lee. The specialty menu is on until April 30th.

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20 thoughts on “Beer and Food: Goose Island and Nota Bene

  • Alan

    Somewhat like Scotland under Thatcher, Toronto seems to be where experiments are happening to determine what can be gotten away with in the good beer world. I love these two beers because they are so readily available and cheap in the US. Up-selling them in this way is somewhat precious but, more to the point, a bit insulting when within an hour’s drive they are available at grocery stores and gas stations. Sure they are great beers. But they are also common and should be commonly available at a modest price and certainly not accompanied by obligatory pairing.

  • admin Post author

    I’m seeing online prices for a 750ml bottle of Sofie in the states at $10.99. I think it will be approximately the same in Ontario if not slightly less expensive. It’ll be commonly available in two weeks.

  • Alan

    I see it for more like $7.99 or $8.99 in NNY and CNY. Now just get Hennepin in at that price and we’ll start the basis for a good selection of classic affordable saisons once Dupont shows.

      • Alan

        See the article up there Ben? If you were to read it you’d learn about a dinner where the modest beer was upsold in an immoderate context leading poor Jordan to be confused. But nice use of quotation marks.

        • Ben

          Thanks Alan. I was at that meal (a lunch, incidentally not a dinner) sitting roughly two feet from Jordan. I was simply trying to provide you with some information about which you seemed to be speculating. I checked the LCBO product list for my own post on this lunch and confirmed the actual price in Ontario, which I think you’ll agree isn’t a big upsell from the US price. I thought I might share that info. But nice use of condescension.

          • Alan

            Then thanks for missing the point, again. Place a widely available beer in that sort of context and you create and perpetuate a precious marketing spin on a very tasty but soon to be even more mass produced beer. I presume you both didn’t pay for the meal but you may want to consider how the event and even the participation frames the up selling.

          • Alan

            You have me confused, too… unless the Poached Nova Scotia Lobster with a Citrus Vinaigrette comes along with the LCBO’s $9.99.

  • admin Post author

    So, you’re willing to suggest that I’m confused and that Ben is illiterate over a one dollar price difference that you would easily eat up in gas money on the way to Watertown? Is that not mildly hyperbolic? I’ll admit the prose got a touch Tom Wolfe Purple, but in my defense, it was an excellently planned lunch.

  • admin Post author

    It was declared in the first sentence that I didn’t pay for it. And I called attention to the nature in which it was upsold in paragraph seven. The fact that it was done excellently from that point forward is no fault of mine.

  • Alan

    Well that is all fine but you might add some analysis of what it going on around you, what the meaning of the event is. It is, essentially, an advertisement that you sat through. You may also go to asking about the proposed price point, too. Why is it $9.99 when we know Dupont in a larger format is coming to the market at $8.10 or so. Is its relative value comparable? What does the $1.89 mean? Where does it go? Certainly not transatlantic shipping. And what makes it all excellent as opposed to, say, splendid? Splendid conveys that over ripeness that was clearly at play. It is obvious that there are plenty of price pressure factors at play in the scene you have painted. But I appreciate, without judging, that these likely cause tensions and challenges. Yet there must be a way of placing these ideas into the review, too.

  • admin Post author

    It would certainly be appropriate if I were writing a piece comparing and contrasting the relative values of Saisons currently on the market within Ontario. However, the title of the piece is not “SaisonPalooza ’13: Where we get right down to analyzing prices determined by a government agency of whose inner workings we know naught and the relative value of the products to which those prices are assigned, we suspect based on the comparatively arbitrary assumption that the purchaser will pay this much but probably not a great deal more.” It’s “Beer and food: Goose Island and Nota Bene.” In no way does the brief suggest that the body of the text will cover that subject material.

  • Alan

    So, you are using the “being unaware of sitting through and advertisement” defense? Maybe I am getting old but when one is invited to a party one does tend to ask why.

    • Ben

      Alan, we’re not morons and had no illusions about why beer writers and food bloggers had been invited to enjoy an expensive lunch gratis. Jordan has made clear that he attended and ate for free, and everyone reading that disclosure will understand AB InBev’s intentions, he’s simply commenting on the beer and the food. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but not everything has to be about the politics of the thing.

      • Alan

        To be fair and honestly not unkind, Ben, Jordan and I are not having this discussion in two media. It’s getting chunky. But I don’t want to leave it as politics so much as… well, I want to say something without meta in it but seem to want to write something with meta in it. What does the event mean? The beer as participant in a largely closed affected by un-commercial pressures and interests.

        • Ben

          I actually had a feeling this talk had migrated over to gchat when I saw you were both online there just now. I’m perfectly fine being left out, actually.
          And frankly, I think we all agree. The event was clearly AB InBev’s attempt at buying a little publicity, the mark-up reflects their desire to position this as an “upscale” brand in Canada as evidenced by the choice of venue and pairing, but, all cynicism aside, these were some tasty beers and it was a really nice menu. I think perhaps my attempt at clarifying price was misconstrued as something else. Anyway, I’m tired and I’m enjoying a delicious beer. Good evening gentlemen.

  • Alan

    OK, zoom back in. I agree it does not matter but, to be fair, isn’t there an implicit cultural slag you are both missing? Haven’t I accused you of fundamental neediness?

    Ben, I accept that totally. I think it is fair to say that quotation marks can be read out loud as “you arsehole” so as to give us “Both are $9.95 here. Not a huge upsell, you arsehole.” But that may well be just me. Likely is.