By the time I joined the team on the mezzanine in Goose Island’s Fulton Street brewery on Chicago’s west side, they had already tagged and bagged the Rasselbock. But they hadn’t yet tasted their prize. Big smiles and bight eyes gleamed with anticipation from the entire crew. This is a familiar sentiment from the Fulton & Wood teams, and that’s because for most of the team, this is the first beer they’ve ever had a say in. And their hopes are high.
Goose Island’s Fulton & Wood series is more than an innovation program. Plenty of breweries this size have a section of their portfolio devoted to experimentation — enabling their brewers to take a break from the production of their popular IPAs and wheat ales. But Fulton & Wood (the literal intersection of cross-streets for the brewery) has always had a bigger goal than just the beer. It’s a chance for people from around the company — accounting, marketing, operations, maintenance — to come together with brewers and concept new beers from scratch. And regardless of how bizarre the ideas are, it’s up to the lead brewer on each team to try and do the idea justice.
Failure is always an option with Fulton & Wood, but it’s never expected. Each beer is conceived, and the first-draft recipes approximated well enough that they can be pitched and defended in front of Mike Siegel, the Goose Innovation Manager and Brett Porter, Goose Island's brewmaster. It's a sober affair. The team reviews spreadsheets and schedules, and challenges grain choices, hop additions, and yeast strains. I the end, this team needs to edit down from about a dozen beers to three or four that will be trailed and then brewed.
In past years, this process has helped create beers such as Cucumbersome, and bitter but crushable cucumber pils, En Passant, a super-session able rye ale specifically designed to pair with Templeton Rye whiskey, and perhaps my favorite of all-time, Kisetsu, a saison/sake hybrid beer released at the end of last year. But the 2014 Fulton & Wood series means a new set of teams, and a new set of beers that will challenge the brewers and our palates with fresh ideas and reinventions of traditional styles.
You might think that “innovation beers” might be driven by an experimental hop profile or an isolated wild yeast strain, or some crazy blend of barrel-aged beers, especially at Goose Island. But not so. Instead, the first release, the Rasselbock, is driven by a grain bill unlike any other. And some brewers are claiming that grain is the next big thing for beer geeks — an under-explored foundation of almost every beer that’s not an IPA (which is usually designed to get the grain bill and the yeast out of the way of hops). Brewers know this. But for most of us, it’s an afterthought.
Grain provides so much of the character we love in our beers, especially traditional styles. It creates texture, mouthfeel, and a myriad of flavors from sweetness to sharpness, to tang and peppery qualities. And with heirloom grains coming back through the efforts of micro-masters, the next few years of brewing will abound with new thinking in grain bills.
The recipe for conjuring the Raselbock, that bizarre horned rabbit with wings, may have been lost to the ages. But the team at Goose Island, led by brewers Patrick Reisch and Brian Turner, was determined to cast a spell from three traditional German styles, reimagined in a wild array. It’s a delicious melding of malts, with a cascading texture and mild roast flavor perfect for a late winter and early spring — which happens to be prime Rasselbock season, if you’re still convinced it’s real. The result? A beer far outside of styles — unless that style is a Dunkelroggenweizenbock.
With inspiration from the Rachel Steward, an accounting clerk, Gopal Balakrishnan, a wholesale support supervisor, and Patti Mandel, a Goose educator, the brewing team worked to combine the elements of a Dopplebock, Rogenbier, and a Bavarian Weiss, creating a beer with clove aromatics, a hint of banana, and a dry rye finish.
More than just a frankenstein of beer styles, the team worked to find the perfect balance of grains, evoking a German strong beer, wheat, and rye beer all in one. One can only imagine the labor involved in cleaning that lauter tun. The creamy body and frothy head is as thick as the fever dream most likely responsible for its invention, and the subtle spice note quality comes from the Weihenstephan yeast — a familiar strain from Reisch’s internship experience at Spaten in Germany.
It pours like a nitro beer, with the various pumpernickle-like colors cascading down the glass — gradually darkening, turning from Munich malt shades to Midnight Wheat. And perhaps my favorite part of the beer is the texture, with a slightly silty-silky quality unlike anything I’ve had in recent memory.
Goose collaborator Ian Law produces the artwork and posters for the Fulton & Wood series, and this year he’s been given even more freedom to explore the look and branding of each beer. I met up with Ian to see some of his original sketches for the Rasselbock at Beer Bistro in the west loop. He created innumerable versions of the mythical winged, horned rabbit, which as the story goes, can only be caught by having a beautiful woman expose herself in the woods and render the animal lifeless while the hunter bags the creature. Ian saw the animal as a spirit that leaps between worlds with a menacing eye (note the subtle animation on the official Fulton & Wood page). As beautiful as the rendering of the Rasselbock is, I was especially drawn to the hand-lettering of the name itself — mastering that angle and style is no small feat.
Fulton & Wood’s release parties are almost as sought-after as the beers themselves. But in previous years, they’ve been fairly small and out-of-the-way. This year, they’re going to be bigger and more inclusive, with a big kick-off in Chicago, and then kegs of the good stuff will be showing up at Migration Week parties, some with yours-truly as host, all around the country.
The Rasselbock official release is already behind us — held at the newly renovated Lincoln Square Lanes, that former dive-bar-bowling alley above the hardware store on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. The Goose team knocked off early, grabbed a few pints, and hurled some 12-pounders under that stunning mural of Abraham Lincoln himself.
If you want to hear about future launch parties, sign up for the GBH mailing list! But this week, the Rasselbock starts showing up on tap handles all around the city, so you can get yours. Check out the official Fulton & Wood page for details on where to find it.