Words: Rach Smith | Photos: Rach Smith
I’m on the 12:49 London Bridge train out of Horsham, as sunny spells emerge through occasional cloud on this late September Saturday, I make my way toward Shoreditch. When asked what I was getting up to this weekend, the answer “going to a block party” was greeted by confused faces, and to be honest, it’s not something I’d originally planned to do before flying to Greece at 5:00am the following morning, but this isn’t just any party. There are two types of block party you should be aware of, firstly, the British indie outfit responsible for one of the best albums of all time (minus the K), and secondly, the Goose Island street gathering which acts to promote some now quite iconic beers. It’s the latter that brings me to Shoreditch this fine afternoon and away from the chore of washing and packing my socks.
The party is being held at Old Street’s Red Market, an open area engulfed by street art, surrounded by trendy venues. It’s a good place to be situated, very much within the beating heart of a creative scene that, by the seems of the local surroundings, is one with a penchant for art, music, new wave coffee, and venturing into vegan leanings. The venue itself is easily identified from the tube station, a bloody great Goose Island billboard above the market acts as a beacon. I walk up to it, enquire with the security staff as to whether I can enter or not and am initially told to “go round the back, yeah.” I don’t. I leave it a while, meet up with Matt from The Half Pint Gent blog, and try to get in again for the VIP preview event that we’re here for. The security staff don’t seem to know much about it at first, and honestly, the whole thing’s got a last minute vibe to it, but we get in with the rest of the event attendees and get to drinking the samples on offer within one of the many indoor bar areas that are dotted around the site.
A few introductions take place, a beer is thrust into my hand and Goose Island founder, John Hall takes to the stage (a set of stairs- the actual stage is outside) and gives us a lowdown on the history of Goose Island. “It’s hard to believe” he states when referring to being here in London, promoting beers based on the traditional UK style. It was beers such as Fuller’s London Pride that inspired Hall to set-up Goose Island and an English style brewpub back in Chicago. Those traditionally styled beers are still at the core of what the brewery is, with a focus on well balanced beers but, as he goes on to state, “as people’s beer palate develops, they get excited”, so stronger, more complex and exciting beers are also part of the portfolio and that’s what we’re in the midst of sampling.
The gathered throng is midway through the new collaboration beer between the brewery and skate brand Vans to celebrate 60 years of the latter. The coming together of the two icons has resulted in a crisp, clean lager with a slight herbal snap. It doesn’t create a WOW moment for me, but it does what a decent lager should do, at 5.1% it provides refreshment and more than adequate company. If I was sat on a beach watching the surf, this’d be the beer to suit my mood. I also can’t help but think that by teaming up with Vans it’s somewhat reinforced a kind of cool retro vibe that Goose Island exudes. The pairing, like most Vans shoes, is a good fit.
Sofie is next to greet us, the 6.5% Saison, with an aroma that I could bottle as perfume – think about that for a moment, those Goose heads as perfume bottle spray pumps. I’m sure I’ve spent far too long sniffing the beer but the aroma really is stunning, a medley of orange zest and fresh pepper, with a white wine edge. The taste holds the same characteristics as the flavours zing over the palate.
Juliet is just as aromatic, and as I stand there breathing in the aromas, making business plans for Goose Island perfumes, I’m hit with aromas of dark, fruits and peppered spice. This is a beer very much designed to be paired with food, and appeal to the wine community as an alternative. It looks the part, smells the part, tastes the part; blackberry, oak, pepper, tart but balanced. This is a beer to share. Handy then that it comes in 750ml bottles.
We end with the iconic Bourbon County Stout and a variant of it, Templeton Rye, in a side-by-side tasting. I have to admit that I can’t distinguish much between the two, the chocolate milk notes of the original maybe not so evident in the latter, yet a touch more spice. Both are almighty injections of chocolate, mocha, liquorice and sticky sweet fruit pudding that pour like syrup and exceed expectation.
In a trance-like high from the beautiful vintage brews, I venture outside in a bid to use my food token and stop at the sign that signals tofu, katsu curry, black bagels. Yep. In a line of brisket and ribs it is standout and damn delicious. If that’s piqued your interest then seek out Little Ghost Bagels. Wandering through the gathered crowd who await the stage to light up with the evenings entertainment (Everything Everything headline), over to the main bar, I order a pint of Goose Island’s new beer, Four Star Pils. It’s a fine accompaniment to the bagel, but honestly, my palate is gloriously ruined by this point that I don’t taste much more than generic lager. I sit on it a while (not literally), enjoy the brass troupe that’ve started getting the crowd warmed, explore some more, but ultimately there’s only one place I want to be, and that’s back at the Vintage Bar with some Bourbon County Stout in my hand.
The idea of these beers being available in the UK is a pleasant thought and certainly a reason to encourage the return of the Block Party. Not only that, the idea of seeing a band such as Everything Everything headline for just a tenner a ticket is also something to pay attention to. Despite all this I still, perhaps naively, just really like the poetic notion of Goose Island bringing iconic beers to the shores, to the city, that planted the seed of inspiration in John Hall’s mind all those years ago. It’s a kind of full circle celebration. I’ve a weakness for this sort of sentimental stuff. Walking around Shoreditch does that for me, these are the streets which my Mum’s parents grew up on, survived the blitz on. My Nan still tells me stories from her time in these parts and I cherish every word as her memories are stirred up by my mention of the latest beer event in the area, or even a taste of a beer itself. The dark beers are the ones her dad would drink, even when they weren’t popular. A sip of porter often results in the opinion of it being “handsome” (drop your H please) and will remind her of picking up a jug of dark beer for her dad and taking a cheeky sip in the alley before bringing it home to him. Occasionally he’d stick a hot poker in the beer to warm it, but if not having a beer at home, a favourite pub of his was Dirty Dicks. It’s still there, on Liverpool Street, I’ll go in one day and ponder what he’d make of the beers coming from London today. Funny how beer can produce that sentimentality isn’t it? It fits the vibes of this afternoon though, that beautiful balance of the roots of Goose Island and it’s traditional beers together with the excited buzz coming from this new London event in an area that is all about creating and evolving. It’s a nice blend.
It’s 3:00am Sunday morning and I’m getting ready in a hungover daze. I make it onto the plane, still with a taste of Bourbon County in my mouth. I can smell it too. A memory of being splattered in the stuff comes back to me and I realise that a piece of clothing I threw on in said daze still has the remnants of that accident on it. I’m totally OK with it though as I drift off to the thought of those Goose Island perfumes…
Many thanks to Matt Chinnery and Hannah Tucker for hooking me up with a ticket. Disclaimer: I did not pay for entry to the event and the beers sampled at the preview and the food were free to me. I haven’t allowed this to affect my opinion.