A meticulously recreated 19th Century pale ale produced with the close involvement of beer historian Ron Pattinson? Yes please.
As with the Fuller’s Past Masters beers, there was never a moment’s doubt that we had to taste Goose Island Brewery Yard, but the talked-about price — £20 for a 750ml bottle — did give us a moment’s pause. Fortunately, when we asked around for where it could actually be bought (lots was given away as, essentially, marketing bling) we were pointed toward Clapton Craft who had it at a much more reasonable £12 a bottle. We ordered two, along with some other interesting stuff to justify the postage, intending to drink one now and leave the other for at least a couple of years.
First, putting aside matters of history, expectation and industry politics, how is it as a beer? The aroma is unmistakably ‘Bretty’, which is to say very like Orval. (It’s a different strain of Brettanomyces, apparently, but, until we’ve had more practice, the distinction seems lost on us.) There’s also something like hot sugar. In the glass, it looks like an extremely pretty bitter, at the burnished end of brown, topped of with a thick but loose head of white. The taste was remarkably interesting with, once again, Orval as the only real reference point: Brewery Yard is thinner, drier and lighter-bodied despite a higher ABV (8.4%). There was something wine-like about it — a suggestion of acidity, perhaps, or of fruit skins? There was also a strong brown sugar tang, as if a cube or two had been dissolved and stirred in. That’s a flavour we’ve come across before, in two of the Fuller’s Past Masters beers — 1966 Strong Ale and 1914 Strong X — and not one we’re all that keen on. So, as a beer, we didn’t love it wholeheartedly, and probably wouldn’t spend £12 on another bottle.
But it’s not just a beer, is it? It’s the equivalent of one of those expensive scholarly books that hardly anyone reads and which are priced high for libraries. As an academic text in liquid form, it’s hard to fault. It’s not ‘inspired by’ or fudged, it’s as earnestly faithful as can reasonably be expected. If you’re interested in how 19th Century beer really tasted, it’s a must.
And, finally, as a marketing exercise for Goose Island? Well, it’s exactly what we’ve been asking for on our ‘Hey, PR People!’ page for years: a project that gets people talking because of its substance, not because of packaging or gimmickry. It’s an ad we don’t mind paying for. Once. We hope it sells out and gets them lots of coverage, and that other breweries jump on this particular bandwagon. (With Ron in tow.)
If, after reading that, you’re not convinced, or you just can find any for sale anywhere, there is a hack that can get you in the same territory. Because it tastes rather like Orval blended with a Fuller’s beer, we tested a mix of the Trappist classic with that Past Masters 1966 (Past Mastorval…) and the combination of Brettanomyces, Goldings hops and brown sugar was close enough to get the point across. Melissa Cole is right, though: ESB would have been better again.
Disclosure: we’re kind of pally with the people who worked on this project. We have corresponded fairly frequently about aspects of beer history with Mike Siegel of Goose Island; and have done various favours (sharing scans, books, etc.) for Ron Pattinson, as he has done for us.