AS THE FLAGSHIP BEER of Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery both before and after Anheuser Busch-InBev’s 2011 buyout, 312 has been an icon of its area code and the face of Chicago brewing for years. Now distributed in snazzy cans and recently rolled out into all 50 states, the beer has undoubtedly been influenced by the buyout in terms of production scale if nothing else. And while no evidence has surfaced yet of a recipe change, one more thing is undeniable: the Goose Island website now errs in proclaiming ‘brewed and bottled by Goose Island, Chicago, IL’ at the bottom of every page. 312 is being produced largely in area code 315, which for those keeping track is about 670 miles away in central New York State. (In fairness, the bottles themselves do reflect their brewing location.) So even if the mash bill remains the same, some have wondered how the change of scenery, water, and equipment would impact the flavor—concerns that has gone largely unaddressed. Assuredly, delivering a desired product to an ever-increasing audience is fundamentally sound economics. But altering that product and thereby diminishing it to achieve growth objectives is fundamentally alienating and counterproductive.
Will that happen to 312? Has it already happened? The buyout is two years old now, but still recent enough to spark debate and speculation that has yet to be resolved. Whatever the case, this is the baggage Goose Island must have known they were taking on when the deal was made and they’ll bear it till journey’s end. Enough editorializing (for now).
Poured from one of those aforementioned new yellow cans, 312’s color is a little akin to the UV-resistant aluminum surrounding it, albeit with a paler straw hue that ironically looks nearly sun-faded. The head is sizeable, a little sudsy, with hints of residual lacing through the first half. The aromas are airy and not especially concentrated, but it’s easy enough to pick out a light grain base of 2-Row Pale and wheat with a bit of hop tartness, lemon, and a modicum of spice. As of tasting it had spent a mere week in its can.
Unfortunately, despite the beer’s freshness its flavors seem to reflect its faded color. There is wheat present in the body, but it lacks definition—the resemblance is almost more of adjunct grains that blunt the mouthfeel and diminish the refreshing bite of Cascade hops. Too, it lacks the sparkle of carbonation that should really enliven summer/wheat ales. The finish is clean and rather nondescript. None of the 4.2% ABV is present, making 312 an easy companion for summer festivals and copious consumption, which is exactly the direction Busch has taken the brand. And the beer is indeed serviceable: light, inoffensive flavors that escape (excessive) wateriness and a modestly more complex palate than the typical macrobrewed canned lagers on the market. But if that’s now the market 312 is going up against, what is the point of it being a craft wheat ale in the first place? Aside from buying street cred, that is.
So 312 is ultimately an average wheat ale and a notch above that when placed on the full continuum: better than Bud, Coors, Miller, Becks, etc., and also better than Blue Moon and even some legitimate Midwest craft efforts (Boulevard’s Unfiltered Wheat, for one). Yet also worse than Oberon, Gumballhead, or A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ from Lagunitas, whose new facility in Chicago may make them the new big brother in town to admire.
Let’s now step back and consider this from another perspective (i.e. editorialize). A recent Chicago Business feature on Goose Island argues that the brewery has ‘held onto its cred’ since the buyout, highlighting an array of behind-the-scenes improvements that most consumers wouldn’t consider. These include increased purchasing clout and funding for experimental brews, better wages, and even a much improved safety record, all of which are irrefutable benefits of the conglomerate buyout. Drinkers also reap benefits, mostly via more small-batch brews like Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS), regarded as one of the world’s best, and further development of their Belgian-inspired line (Matilda, Sofie, etc.), which has retained its creative and cultured edge.
And yet 312 remains unresolved. Can a product retain its carefully ‘crafted’ qualities even as it’s commoditized? Palates more familiar than mine with the beer’s history will have to make that judgment. The unsettling feeling remains that some sacrifice has to be made upon the altar of macro-mash-management and that 312 is the obvious child. On the other hand, the news that 312’s move to New York allows for a fivefold expansion of BCBS may have fanatical beer fans whetting the ceremonial blades themselves.
Served: 12 oz canned 7/6/13