Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Goose Island/Wilco

At first, Wilco mostly sounded like a Stones cover band dabbling in Gram Parsons (or the Byrds, or the Burrito Bros). Their first album, AM, was filled with honky-tonk romps and pseudo country laments with some real pedal steel, but with mostly what I think was electric guitar trying to sound like a pedal steel. Then Tweedy got all Dylan-y and weird and produced a steady stream of outstanding albums, culminating with one of the best of the last decade.

Which brings me to Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Company, a great place to start when looking for a Wilco-appropriate brew (and probably where Obama should’ve turned when deciding what to sip on TV). They’re from the same city, which helps. But Goose and Wilco also share a common trajectory, in that they’ve successfully maintained a quality product despite partial corporate ownership and influence.

The Brewers Association refuses to classify Goose Island as a craft brewery. According to their rules a “craft” brewer can’t be more than 25% owned by a non-craft brewery, and, in 2007, several Goose shareholders sold out to Widmer Brothers Brewing of Oregon; Widmer supposedly now owns roughly 40% of Goose Island and are themselves nearly 40% owned by Anheiser, hence neither brewery qualifies as craft. It’s like SAT math for drunkards. But these classifications are ridiculous; if you make good beer you make good beer and Goose Island makes good beer. And so does Wilco. By which I mean they make good music, not beer. Both the band’s original record label, Reprise, as well as Nonesuch Records, who bought the rights to Yankee Hotel after Reprise passed on it, are imprints of the massive Warner Music Group. So like Goose, you’d be hard-pressed to qualify Wilco as “indie,” or “craft” anymore – they now fill amphitheaters and minor league ball parks - but again, doesn’t matter. On to the beer.

Really Wilco’s trajectory requires two Goose Island brews. AM through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot pair well with Matilda, Goose’s interpretation of the Belgian strong pale ale. Appropriately, strong pale ales are strong (between 7% and 12% ABV according to Beer Advocate), and pale. Despite varying degrees of fruit, hops, funk and spice, they tend to be refreshing and highly drinkable (just like Wilco); for reference sip a Duvel, the best-known Belgian strong pale ale. And what Wilco did for alt-country – that is build on an established style, progressing it in new directions – Matilda does for strong pales.

Matilda starts with modest Indian-food spice (clove, coriander, etc), followed by plenty of hops (not IPA territory, but a lot for the style). Aggressive fruit hits next - apricots and citrus come to mind - along with a sour mustiness. In Wilco terms, the modest malt background has the innocence of AM, the noticeable spice and ballsy fruit imply the ambition of Summerteeth, and the collective flavor recalls the brilliant-yet-digestible complexity of YHF; there’s also an earthy scrappiness that’s totally the drinkable doppelganger to the shambling drum intro in “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” Plus Matilda at once manages to be heavily sweet and sour creating a tension not unlike that between Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett (RIP). It’s the push/pull that creates a perfectly disjointed balance.

But then Wilco released those last three albums: A Ghost is Born, Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album). They’re all perfectly acceptable, but really they’re kind of boring. So beer-wise we have to take it down a notch. Something simpler, yet assertive to match all these piercing Nils Kline guitar solos. We’ll go with Goose Island’s IPA. It’s straight forward, but still a solid beer. There’s a decent malt background and an incredibly hoppy bitterness (again, Nils) which is all pine and straw. And the Midwest is covered in straw and hay and stuff right, so that’s kind of Wilco-y too.

This is getting too long. So last thing: Matilda’s bottle indicates that the beer’s flavor will continue to develop over five years, so I’m setting one aside to age. If at that point I’m still writing this waste-of-time blog, we’ll do another Wilco comparison and see if they’ve ditched the IPA simplicity.

Goose Island Beer Company
Chicago, IL
Style: Belgian strong pale ale
ABV: 7.0

Goose Island India Pale Ale
Goose Island Beer Company
Chicago, IL
Style: India pale ale
ABV: 5.9


  1. Not a waste of time. Very enjoyable read. Please write more!