At the same time that a new brewery seems to open in Ontario every week, we are also treated to the release of widely-recognised, international beers almost as often. Two Belgian style ales from Chicago’s goose island brewery – Sophie and Matilda – will be making their Ontario debut this April.
The plan is to have them in LCBOs by the week of April 29. Until then, they are exclusively available at Nota Bene on Queen Street West. I had the pleasure of attending a media lunch there last week to mark the occasion.
The cloudy, gold Sofie is brewed in the saison style. It spends three months in the company of a dose of Brettanomyces — a strain of yeast that is used to give beer a gentle tart-funk. The fresh orange peel that goes into the barrel with the beer nicely ties together the hint of sweetness, touch of bitterness, and gentle tartness. Goose Island Brewery’s founder named Sofie after his granddaughter. She received that honor on her 10th birthday, but for legality sake it didn’t come with a sample of beer.
Matilda of Tuscany, a sort of 11th century Italian Joan of Arc, is the namesake for the other Goose Island beer in the release. This Belgian pale ale has a polished penny color to it. It announces itself with biscuity malt aromas that are seasoned with notes of warm spices. The flavour brings lots of stone fruit — that one of my tablemates pinpointed as apricots — a dry, lingering finish.
In a balanced and measured way, the food for the lunch was just as much in the spotlight as the beer. To start, with Sofie, we were served a very neatly plated salad featuring poached Nova Scotia lobster, Enoki mushrooms, citrus vinaigrette and a pineapple-vanilla reduction. The sauces on the salad lifted the beer’s tropical and citrus zest flavors. For the main course, chef David Lee gave us his signature suckling pig and Boudin noir tart — a dish that has its own cult-like following. Such a distilled expression of deep, earthy flavors (the smoke of bacon, umami from mushrooms, and truffle vinaigrette’s musk) gave the flavors of warm spices and stewed fruit in the Matilda something to lean against. For the dessert course we jumped back to Sofie and a simple, but vibrant rhubarb sorbet.
As an added enticement for those who want to give the idea of carefully crafted beer matched with top-tier food a shot, Nota Bene will keep the Boudin tart ($29) on the menu for the rest of the month.
When a question brought Goose Island’s Cicerone, Suzanne Wolcott, around to the matter of price I was struck by a thought. At retail, they expect it to be about $10 (that’s a great deal) and that bars and restaurants will add a 200 to 300% markup. Let’s put aside, for the time being, the question of what that amount should be in order to discuss the reasons for adding a markup at all. Part of the value a restaurant adds is convenience and ambiance – you get to drink with your friends in a room nicer than your basement and don’t have to do the dishes – but it should also be a matter of expertise. Craft beer needs to be served in proper glassware, at the right temperature, and poured with some skill. For beers like these two from Goose Island, 4 or 5°C is, in my opinion, way too cold. I’d like to see them noticeably warmer than fridge temperature, somewhere around the top of the temperature range you’d expect for white wine. They should also come to the table with at least a finger’s worth of fluffy white head on top of the glass.
I’m sure there will be more than a couple of craft-brewed feathers ruffled by this release. The marketing and distribution muscle of Labatt (who, like Goose Island, is an arm of the AB InBev global-brewing octopus) certainly came in handy for helping secure a patch of the limited space in the province’s LCBOs. But, from a beer drinker’s perspective, it’s becoming tougher to get upset about that. I’m bothered that the Empty Bottle Depot (a.k.a. the Beer Store) is designed to make it as difficult as possible to buy anything other than Bud Lite (or one of the fractionally different brands on the “Top 10″ board), but Sofie and Matilda are really delicious ales that are not far from the first tier in North America. I’m happy to have the opportunity to try them close to home. And, as a beer drinker who has been known to enjoy a bite or two of food with my drink, I’m especially pleased to see it paired with the delicious fare at Nota Bene.