Summer was at its languid apex when the three of us ventured out into the enveloping humidity of an early Ithaca evening lit by the lambent glow of fireflies. All of us would all be leaving town within the coming weeks, so why not lighten the load I’d have to cart away? Three bottles of Goose Island’s Sofie were among the bottles we chose for this purpose of subtraction, one each from 2011, 2012, and 2013.
Recently twenty-five years young, Goose Island got its start as a Chicago brewpub in 1988. By 1995, demand for Goose Island’s beers justified the building of a larger brewery and bottling plant. As a result of a series of deals to secure wider distribution, Goose Island has since fallen into the hands of larger interests, with Anheuser-Busch InBev now controlling fifty-eight percent of the company. (I’ll refrain from addressing the tortured “craft versus crafty” debate for now, but if you’d like to get a sense of what all the brouhaha is about, see Beervana’s informative article.) In a press release marking the occasion of the agreement, Goose Island founder and president, John Hall, assured his devoted fans that “the new structure will preserve the qualities that make Goose Island’s beers unique, strictly maintain our recipes and brewing processes” (sic). Thanks to these agreements, Goose Island’s beers now enjoy wide availability. If these beers haven’t already arrived on the shelves of your bottle shop, chances are that you, too, might soon be able to start building up a reserve of beers like Sofie, Matilda, Pepe Nero, and Père Jacques.
As for those three farmhouse ales that have been patiently awaiting our attention? Fermented with wild yeast, Sofie is a blended beer comprised of eighty percent Belgian-style ale and twenty percent Belgian-style ale aged in wine barrels with orange peel. Goose Island bills Sofie as “an intriguing choice for Champagne drinkers and beer drinkers who are fond of Belgian Saisons,” and there’s not much my friends and I could find to quarrel with in this description.
All three vintages were similar in appearance – golden honey – but beyond that, we were drinking three very different beers. The 2013 was the most vinous of the three, with peppery Sauvignon Blanc-like aromas of gooseberry and cedar shrub that one of my friends referred to less charitably as cat piss. All of us were in agreement that the beer was much more palatable than what the aromas might have suggested to some of us – a silky and effervescent ensemble of bready malt accented by a touch of Brettanomyces underneath a fruitiness suggestive of white grapes: elegance right through the clean-grained orange-malt finish.
The 2012 edition is probably the clearest expression of this farmhouse ale’s nod in the direction of Champagne. Wheat and clean Pils malt aromas combine with a yeastiness both bread-like and peppery, and a trace of green tea opens onto Brett-infused apple cider. As with the 2013, this beer is a paragon of balance: malt richness rounds out the lime-like acidity; pear-inflected apple cider and musky white grape notes pay their compliments; and all of this makes an admirable match for the piquant effervescence.
With the extra year of age on the 2011, the wild yeast and barrel-aging notes become even more pronounced. The beer exudes relatively strong notes of “bandaid” Brettanomyces together with cinnamon, mellow green apples, a peppery yeastiness, and a delicate floral perfume. “Nice and mellow,” was our consensus. We also agreed that of the three beers, this one does better on the warmer side of cellar temperature. In comparison to the effervescence of the other two vintages, this ale is less prickly but also more dry and sour. The wild yeast aromatics hear their echo on the palate (albeit with a slightly bitter-herbal tone) along with some green apple tartness. A pleasant citrusy levity cheers the finish.
Goose Island claims that Sofie will develop for up to five years, and well it might. Of the three successive vintages we tasted, moderate aging flatters the beer. While the 2011 exhibited a more pronounced spice, wood, and Brettanomyces character, it had developed a tart dryness that led us to question whether more of this would be a good thing.
So drink up, but not too quickly.
Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc: F. D. Hofer
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