Brewer’s Spotlight: Keith Gabbett, Goose Island Beer Co.

Our “Brewer’s Spotlight” is a series of conversations with innovative brewers across the country. Recently we sat down with Keith Gabbett, Lead Brewer at Goose Island Beer Co., in Chicago, IL. John I. Haas is honored to be a trusted supplier of quality hops for Goose Island—and Keith is currently featured in our “Here’s to the Moments” ad campaign. This month, we discussed hops and innovation, inspirational cocktails and the origins of some of Goose Island’s favorite ladies.

Q: Is there a particular philosophy that drives your beers?
Keith: A lot of what we do at Goose is focused on being as innovative and creative as possible. We’re a production brewery but we have the luxury of innovating and bringing new styles forward all the time. So we have the beers we brew a lot—Sofie, Matilda, Green Line, OMG—that’s where we practice and hone our craft. But, at the same time, we’re doing innovative one-offs, constantly pushing forward. We released a beer called Juicy Double; it’s a fantastic double IPA brewed with orange juice and six different hop additions. Also, we will be releasing a beer this fall called Coy Wolf. It’s a dark IPA, brewed with experimental HBC 472, Wakatu and EKG.

Q: Where do you get new ideas?
Keith: Really just looking at the styles that are out there, looking at what else is happening in the world. We tend to do a lot of chef collaborations. Using all these different techniques and styles and ingredients…whether it’s hops or malt, or things from restaurants or cocktails, or even when you’re just out at a bar sipping on a beer and you think, “I could do this. What would I do to make it different? How could I put my own spin on it?”

Q: How do cocktails translate to beer?
Keith: I’m always wondering how I can turn a cocktail into a beer. It’s fascinating to me. We have a couple of them out right now. One is called Hombre Secreto, which is a Saison that has been aged in tequila barrels. We do a couple different variations on that. We have a mango and a lime version. The Saison takes on a lot of interesting elements from the barrel and from the fruit as well.

Along that same style, we produced a beer a few years back called Gillian, which is based on an amuse-bouche, a white-pepper strawberry sorbet. We took that idea and we modified it into a beer. (Interesting bar tale: Gillian is actually named after Gillian Anderson, the actress who stared in the TV series The X-Files. She used to work in Goose Island’s brewpub when she was going to school in Chicago.)

Q: What is your process for innovation?
Keith: Everyone here can come up with any kind of beer style that they want to. If you have a wild idea, we encourage that. We have a two-barrel pilot system that we use for small innovations. Everyone’s allowed to use it—we give them guidance and feedback and, if they want to pursue it, great! Some beers need to go through multiple recipe revamps before they work out. The Juicy Double went through five different brewing trials before we decided to release it to the public. Gillian went through three or four trials. It started off as a six-barrel homebrew trial and moved on to the pilot system that moved on to larger-scale production.

Q: Are there any beers that have not quite hit the mark?
Keith: I mean, the answer is, they’re all perfect, right? It’s funny; that actually makes me think of Bourbon County Stout. When it was first released, it was kicked out of the Great American Beer Festival because it didn’t fit within the style guidelines. However, everyone liked it because it was a fantastic beer … it was just a little ahead of its time. It’s a Russian Imperial Stout aged in bourbon barrels, and it was one of the first of its kind back in an era when craft brewers were basically doing an amber, a dark, and a light beer. Aging something in a bourbon barrel was pretty much unheard of.

Q: This was before the current bourbon craze, I assume.
Keith: Yeah, barrel aging beer started with the brewmaster at the time, Greg Hall. He was at a beer dinner with Jim Beam’s Booker Noe (Frederick Booker Noe III). They were having cigars afterward and they thought it would be interesting to age beer in bourbon barrels. So Booker Noe shipped up some Jim Beam barrels, and Greg Hall brewed a massive Imperial Stout to go in them … the rest is history.

It’s become quite a tradition for us. We release it every year on Black Friday, and you can sometimes find it for a few weeks afterward. We expanded the production from a couple hundred barrels to a couple thousand barrels, but it’s still relatively low volume. It’s one of the hardest beers that we make—it has to sit for around nine months or so. It’s a big beer, it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of effort. So we try to showcase it with a nice bottle and a celebratory release date. People really look forward to it … I’ve seen them line up just about as soon as they finish their Thanksgiving turkey.

Q: What about Sofie and Matilda?
 Goose Island started off as kind of an English-style craft brewery. Most of the beers we did were very English—Honkers Ale, an Extra Special Bitter, and 312, which is an English Summer Ale. Greg Hall, the brewmaster at the time, and some other folks went overseas to Belgium, and they brought back a bunch of ideas. Beers like Pere Jacques, which is a Belgian-style Dubbel, and Matilda, which is a Belgian Strong Golden—these were brewed as homages to the beers they’d had there.

Sofie was our nod to the original barrel-aging portion of Saisons. We added in some fresh orange peel and added some Brettanomyces Bruxellensis back to the beer as well—it became this complex, really wonderful, really refreshing citrusy beer that went well with just about everything. Off of that Saison style came lots of beers—Gillian, Halia, Hombre Secreto. We bottle them in 750 ml bottles, really because we like the look and the feel… it adds a bit of elegance to the experience. Plus they’re thicker walled, which helps during the secondary fermentation process with the higher levels of CO2 that develop.

Q: Where do you see trends heading?
Keith: IPA is still the industry leader and I don’t see it going away anytime soon. Especially as we develop new strains of hops, and brewers continue to seek out ways to differentiate from one another. IPA is here to stay. Because you can get anything and everything from hops: you can get blueberries, coconut, citrus, mango, barrel-aged character, along with the ever-present grapefruit and pine notes. So I don’t think that IPAs—or a better way to say it is hoppy beers in general—are going away. It’s easy to make red IPAs or black IPAs or white IPAs. Or split the fine line between IPA and American Pale Ales and make them really hoppy, or really hoppy stout. So, IPAs may be changing, but hoppy-styled beers are here to stay.

Q: Are there any new or experimental hops that are on your radar?
Keith: Ekuanot™, formally Equinox™, which I knew as experimental HBC 366. I just love it, and I try to use it as much as I can. I even stood by it when the name changed three times. It’s a really fun hop.

There’s another, experimental HBC 472, which is the most fantastic hop that I’ve ever seen. It is everything that you could ever want in a hop. It has a great barrel-aged character, so it has some dill and some oak notes, which you don’t normally pick up in hops. It does have some tropical and some fruity characteristics as well–along with some spicy and onion characteristics. It’s one of the few hops that has just blown me away. Then there’s a list of probably 20, 25 hops I love but I can’t remember them all right this second.

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