Friday, April 16, 2010

Loosey goosey

And so it goes, when one has neither the chops nor the gear to take shots like Jesse Friedman, the least you can do is use him as your backdrop.

So when is it a good idea for a brewer, upon delivering the origin stories of their beers to an unfamiliar populace, to overtly reference other, more well known beers, as their respective influences? Such was the case when Goose Island's brewmaster Greg Hall descended on the Monk's Kettle to rub shoulders with local media and business associates as part of their foray into the San Francisco market; here was an opportunity to showcase some beautifully crafted, unique ales that certainly speak to what he described as Goose Island "doing differently", a message that was hamstrung somewhat by references to two of the best beers on the planet, Orval and Rochefort 8, as their inspirations. (I eagerly awaited the Saison Dupont hat trick, but was sadly left hanging.) Does it do the brewer a disservice, conjuring up the juggernaut of an icon like Orval, down to its very name having been derived from the fountain of legend at the Trappist monastery, when its chances of capturing its essence are so very, very slim?

It's particularly jarring when someone as skillful and well-traveled as Hall, someone who has averaged an annual trip to Belgium over the past 15 years, makes those emphatic allusions himself, rather than coming from the mouth of a marketing exec looking to be evocative. One of the very first lessons a homebrewer needs to learn is that trying to clone anything is a path fraught with disappointment. Trying, on the other hand, to emulate certain appealing characteristics as evident in commercial examples, makes for great learning, and a fun way to heighten your sophistication with the craft. Certainly he knows that Matilda, for all its malty-sweet goodness, bears little resemblance to the hoppy, funky delight that our ring-bearing fish friend represents. Being portrayed as a domestic alternative to one of the most singular beverages on Earth seems almost cruel in how it devalues Matilda on its own merits as an eminently enjoyable, spicy, well-balanced pale ale that deserves to find success on local menus.

Hitting the admittedly larger, somewhat easier target of a Trappist-inspired dubbel, Pere Jacques, the tawny ale named in honor of the abbot of Rochefort, strikes a much truer chord, yet seems unfairly saddled with unmeetable expectations thanks to its open homage to Notre Dame de Saint-Rémy. Clearly, this trio of beers, rounded out by the delightful Sofie, a brett- and barrel-tinged saison that pairs embarrassingly well with soft ripened goat's cheese like Humboldt Fog, owes its existence to Greg Hall's travel experiences in Belgium. But in a town like SF, where one can easily get the beers on which these were inspired, one has to wonder if the overt comparisons hurt their chances of finding their way into the glasses of an uninitiated, alien market.

It would be a disservice to both Goose Island and the local dining public if that were the case. These are exceptional beers on their own merit, and hopefully with some time out from underneath the shadows of the giants whose spirit helped guide their inceptions, they'll gain the opportunity to find their own place on menus and draught lists throughout the City.



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