When is a quality control problem not a problem? When it makes a good India pale ale into a great one.
The Windjammer in the centre of Dartmouth is a funny pub — quiet on both our visits, despite friendly people behind the bar and a well-worn, cosy interior. The counter is literally ship-shape, the walls are papered with nautical charts, and the back wall is covered in at least 30-years’-worth of yacht club pennants from around the world.
What caught our eye, once we’d dismissed the house bitter and guest ale as boring-going-on-bad, were bottles of Goose Island IPA. We used to trek across London in search of it but now, it’s everywhere. But, at the Windjammer, we were offered something that swanky craft beer bars could do well to copy: a choice of bottles from the shelf (room temperature), cellar (recommended ‘for this particular beer’) or fridge.
We went with a cold one and asked for a large wine glass to go with it; it cost £4.75.
It poured hazy and, at first, we just thought it was ‘off’. It took a moment for our palates to recognise what we were tasting: Brettanomyces, plain as day.
We didn’t think we were ‘Brett-heads’ or even that we were entirely confident in spotting it in beer unless cued by packaging but this was so pronounced that there could be no mistake. It tasted like one of our Orval blending experiments, and was utterly delicious. The Brett provided a wild top note, like a Gypsy fiddler sneaking into the violin section of a symphony orchestra. Where GI IPA can sometimes, these days, seem rather on the candied side, this was bitter, lemon-pithy and bracing.
If Goose Island was still a tiny one-man-band as it was at its founding in Chicago in 1988 then this oddity might not be all that surprising, but it is now owned by AB InBev (as in Anheuser-Busch, as in Budweiser) — a company which, if nothing else, is famed for the consistency of its products and the rigour of its quality control. How could this have happened?
Our first thought was that it might not be GI IPA at all but another of the same brewery’s beers mislabelled — Matilda, maybe? — but that seems less likely than that some Brett simply got where it shouldn’t have been, migrating from one part of the brewery to another, perhaps stubbornly lingering in a pipe.
We came back for more a couple of nights later and enjoyed it just as much, perhaps all the more so for the knowledge that it was an un-repeatable experience: a few bottles of this one batch, packaged a year or so ago, are probably the only ones with this particular ‘problem’. If you want to try to find them yourself, though, look out for a best before date of 17 July 2015 and what we think is a batch number of 0947.
UPDATE 09/04/2015: Mike Siegel, Brewing Innovation Manager at Goose Island, has emailed to say: ‘The IPA you had was brewed July 17, 2014 in Chicago at our Fulton Street Brewery. This batch was actually flagged as having an elevated micro count and held back. After re-plating and a thorough analysis and tasting, it rechecked as clean and ready to go. I would love to get my hands on some of these bottles to see exactly what has happened over the past nine months.’ So, not a confirmation based on a QC sample as we’d hoped for, but he doesn’t seem to think it’s impossible.
Sorry for the quality of the photo, which was snapped on a smartphone under ‘intimate’ lighting.