MATILDA IS A BEER that many American brewers wish they had made first: Belgian-inspired, yet often preferred by Stateside drinkers over its European precedent. This is not because Matilda is necessarily the best Belgian-style ale brewed in America—no such consensus exists. But the packaging of Matilda and its growing sorority of ‘Vintage Ales’ was so successful that it grew to resemble a lifestyle brand: tasteful scripted logos on simple but attractive labeling, always pictured alongside fluted glassware and nearly as often with food, it appealed to gourmets, women, and wine drinkers as much as Goose Island’s more ‘typical’ male fanbase. Designed to be elegantly light while still complex enough to command respect from aficionados, Matilda mixed continental cache with local American creativity and won praise from all quarters. As a sub-brand within Goose Island, it walked a fine line both before and after the InBev buyout of 2011; thankfully, the beer itself is nearly as sure-footed.
Matilda is also sneakily subversive in that it may be America’s most popular sour beer. Many of its fans wouldn’t first think of it as such, while others aren’t even aware of the brettanomyces dwelling in their delicate stemmed glasses monogrammed with Old English ‘M’s. Yet sour she is, drawing direct inspiration from the only Trappist ale that’s similarly ‘infected’–Orval. Goose Island even tapped into the same legend as Orval’s for the beer’s name, referencing the Duchess of Tuscany who settled the Valley of Gold (Val d’Or). How, then, do master and apprentice match up?
First to note is Matilda’s darker color: still golden but with tints of orange reflecting the crystal malts in a more robust grain bill than the pilsner- and wheat-dominated grists of Belgium. The quality of Matilda’s head seems to be more capricious, too, but at its best is a sorbet swirl of white foam with medium bubbles. Effervescence is on the higher side though not entirely persistent. Its aromas are generally redolent of baking, a little biscuity, honey-sweet at the edges, and with notes of vanilla and a pouch of spices that blend into a single welcoming warmth. As with Orval, hops are more prominent in the mix than is typical for Belgians, though their Noble nature (Saaz, Styrian, etc.) is still quite delicate—mildly grassy and floral with a few hints of spice to complement the fairly firm peppery phenols of the finish.
The beer’s sour element is obvious to anyone looking for it: a moderately tart twist slotted in towards the end, not quite strong enough to be the final impression. And Matilda is less attenuated than some of its Belgian peers, thus leaving a slightly fuller body to counter the sourness with residual sweetness. Part of this might just be perception, based on Matilda’s higher tolerance of esters that suggest apple, tangerine, and some other less citric summery fruit. Either way, the sour note is cleverly intertwined and gives Matilda a piquant allure that would be difficult for those unfamiliar with wild yeasts to describe, but not so pronounced as to seem ‘off’ to even an untrained palate.
In striking such a balance Matilda is a fine homage to Orval. It’s also a less singular and arresting experience. This greater accessibility is not necessarily a flaw, to be sure, and Matilda is especially outstanding when paired with tangy sautéed entrees or robust cheeses. Yet one does wonder how many Matilda devotees unaware of its inspiration would shift their camp to the golden dale, once discovered.
Served: On tap