Monday, October 21, 2013

Goose Island's Gillian: Can a $30 beer be worth it?

Posted By on 10.21.13 at 02:00 PM

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Last week Goose Island's famed Three SistersLolita, Juliet, and Madame Rose—became five with the first bottle releases of Halia and Gillian. All the sisters are wild fruit ales aged in wine barrels; Halia and Gillian are both saisons, the former brewed with peaches and the latter with strawberries, white pepper, and honey.

Senior brewer Keith Gabbett, who's been with Goose Island about four and a half years, devised Gillian's recipe in 2009, though the beer wasn't originally barrel aged. (It also began its life called Scully, which presumably failed to sound enough like a woman's name to fit in with the other sisters.) At the time Gabbett's wife, a chef, was catering a lot of private dinner parties, and she liked to whip up a white-pepper and strawberry sorbet as a between-course palate cleanser.

Scully made its first appearance at the Great Taste of the Midwest in 2009. By the time I first tried it, at the Night of the Living Ales in 2010 (its fourth showing), it was already being barrel aged. "Goose Island took the gold with an oak-aged version of their painfully scarce and truly wonderful Scully," I wrote at the time. "I accosted Goose Island brewer John Laffler, who was a great sport about it, and he 'confirmed' (no journalism actually happens after that much beer, sorry) that Scully is named after Gillian Anderson's character from The X-Files. Laffler also told me that Anderson worked as a server at a Goose Island pub, presumably while attending DePaul, to which I can only say: I want to believe."

I think it's safe to say that I've been waiting a long time for this beer to come back around. So fond are my memories, in fact, that I only flinched a little when confronted with its $30 price tag.

Gabbett tells me that Gillian filled more than 200 red wine barrels at Goose Island's Fulton Street facility (about as big a batch as Halia and Juliet, but much smaller than Lolita). With few exceptions, it's available only in and around Chicago, and those expensive bottles are your best option—though the brewery has received approval for a keg label, Gillian will be tapped only at festivals and special events.

For those of you keeping score at home, Gillian counts as a wild ale because of the yeasts on the skins of the strawberries—40 to 50 pounds of unsterilized fruit per barrel, either fresh or flash frozen. (Say that five times fast.) The wild character gets a boost from inoculation with brettanomyces bruxellensis and the participation of microorganisms in the wood, but strictly speaking those are domesticated bugs.

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After a primary fermentation in stainless steel, Gillian goes into the oak with strawberries and brett for the secondary. Only part of the batch spends time in barrels, and according to Gabbett it's not important what variety of red wine they once held—they've been reused so often that they impart hardly any vinous flavor. Two months later, the honey, white pepper, and champagne yeast join the fun. From that point it takes three more months, more or less, till Gillian is properly attenuated. Gabbett says it's "one of the more difficult barreled beers" he works with.

Gillian smells juicy and funky, which I guess sounds kind of dirty. All kinds of strawberry come crowding out as soon as you open the bottle, of course, accompanied by apricot, lemon, and champagne. A gentle white-pepper prickle accompanies a spicy, yeasty aroma and something richly earthy and herbal that combines sage, juniper, thyme, cedar, and damp straw. Underneath everything else is a faint tendril of strange funkiness that I've struggled mightily to find words for—if I were trying to squick you out, I might liken it to Band-Aids, but I could stay closer to the realm of the edible by saying blue cheese and a freshly snuffed unscented candle. Not the smoke, though. I don't know. It's hard to explain.

I realize I'm not making this beer sound particularly delicious, but I'm sure you're aware of several other fine foodstuffs that smell a tad off-putting and then reward you copiously for trusting them. Gillian is spritzy and effervescent, its tart, mouth-watering fruitiness and honeyed sweetness balanced by mineral bitterness and an astringence like grape skin and pine resin—and those flavors stay as perfectly distinct as the channels in a great live sound mix. Strawberry blends with cantaloupe, pomegranate, sumac, and preserved lemon peel, all of it atop toasted almond, water cracker, and tannins and vanilla from the oak—there's barely any malt presence, despite the beer's generous body and 9.5 percent alcohol content. The finish is almost aggressively dry.

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When I tasted this beer three and a half years ago, I mentioned that I'd had a famous-person crush on Gillian Anderson "ever since I heard she had blue hair and a pet iguana in high school." On this occasion, I decided to try substantiating that rumor. I got pretty close: On April 28, 1997, People magazine published a "before they were stars" piece that mentioned Anderson's early-80s visit to London and subsequent transformation from preppie to punk. "She had cut all her brown hair off and dyed it red," a high school classmate from Grand Rapids, Michigan, was quoted as saying. Her fellow students eventually voted her "Most Bizarre," and according to People she published a piece about her pet iguana in the school paper: "As he spreads himself unenthusiastically on his hot rock, a hint of sorrow spurts from beneath his lidded eyes," she allegedly wrote. "He is no longer the plump reptile I once knew and loved."

Because I know which Gillian this beer is named for, I've got a hook for the metal portion of this week's post. Kazakhstani power-metal band Holy Dragons wrote a song called "X-Files," which appears on their 2000 album Thunder in the Night. And to prove the song is actually about the show, these are the lyrics to the chorus: "Somewhere far away, the truth is out there / Out there in the depth of human mind / Mysteries of universe and our existence / Have been hidden in the labyrinths of time."

Brazilian thrash band Dorsal Atlantica also has a song called "X-Files." It's a studio demo recorded in May 1998, collected on the 2002 rarities comp Pelagodiscus Atlanticus. Its opening lines? "The truth is out there / So far away and so close / Mistrust of government / Nothing is safe anymore."

The longer I write this column, the more certain I become that there's no conceivable subject that hasn't inspired at least one metal song.

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

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