Goose Island LDN Block Party 2017: breaking into the mainstream

Back for a second year, Goose Island Brewery's LDN Block Party returned to Red Market in Shoreditch last weekend, bringing beer, street food and live music in the heart of East London. New and rare beers were available to ticketholders in the confines of the urban outdoor event space, where bars and a line-up of bands entertained a spirited crowd.

Goose Island LDN Block Party

The Block Party epitomises what an enormous event budget can deliver: an ample selection of beer, including a selection of rare, barrel-aged styles, a well-known indie band and an enthusiastic team representing the brand behind every bar. Goose Island, owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, pulled out all of the big stops and repeated the success of last year’s inaugural LND Block Party, and the event – with a £10 entry fee – sold out days in advance.

The crowd was a combination of beer drinkers and gig goers – although these weren’t mutually exclusive. There were just as many revellers there for the headlining act, White Lies, as there were for the drinks. The main stage side bar was met with a constant flow of people, while the more tucked away bars – concealed in adjacent rooms or requiring some exploration – remained manageable. Wayfaring paid off, as the Bourbon County Stout and sour beers didn’t require much of a wait.

Goose Island LDN Block Party

The House of Funk, an indoor bar emulating the noisy ambiance of a nightclub, was serving up the Goose Island vintage ales range, from the wild ale Lolita, with puckering tartness from raspberries added to the wine barrel, to Halia, a farmhouse ale aged in wine barrels with whole peaches. Visitors were treated to a spread of four cheeses paired with four ales. They were also given the opportunity to discuss the menu with an Advanced Cicerone, Jonny Tyson, who was behind the bar.

Goose Island LDN Block Party
Goose Island LDN Block Party

Once of the upstairs spaces was christened Blocktoberfest, where a jovial, lederhosen-clad host welcomed guests. Here, the new collaboration between Goose Island and German brewery Spaten Brauerei, also part of the AB-InBev family, the 6.3% unfiltered Keller Märzen, was a traditional dark German lager. It was apt for the time of year and boasted sweet caramel notes from the darker malt, followed by a rush of a warming alcohol. It was a surprisingly strong beer, but ideal to wash down hotdogs from Engine Hot Dogs, conveniently located beside the bar.

Goose Island LDN Block Party

Across the yard was a second upstairs space, this one a bit tighter area. Joining the set-up of tables and chairs was a piano pressed against the bar, where pianists filled the air with a roster of classic singalong tunes in between the live music sets below. Here, the revered Bourbon County Stout was poured by Goose Island Brand Ambassador, Joshua Smith; the 2015 vintage was a velvety chocolate-rich delight.

In addition to this, there was a selection of Bourbon County Brand Regal Rye Stout, Grand Prestige Vatgerijpt and the 2 year reserve Bourbon County Brand Barleywine. Josh also broke out bottles from his personal collection to offer as palate cleansers between the rich, boozy stouts, including Goose Island’s Class of '88 Belgian ale and delightfully sparkling La Bonté with pear from Wicked Weed Brewing.

Goose Island LDN Block Party

As a follow-up, this year’s LDN Block Party was another impressively sleek feat, just as you'd expect from a big American brewery. Goose Island have nailed the format, bringing plenty of beer to keep the crowds going well after the music stops. You have to marvel at the execution of their London-based events, which have channelled a largely mainstream audience keen to experience the event as a whole; not everyone was eking out the unusual or rare, but the was crowd happy to be a part of it with a beer in hand.

A massive thank you to the Goose Island PR team, who very kindly invited me along to this event.

2016 in review: Goose Island LDN party and Bourbon County launch

As 2016 draws to a close, it seems appropriate to shine a light on some of the events that unfolded across the past year, but have gone overlooked. This isn’t a critique of how memorable each event was in isolation, but rather an observation of how vast the beer scene in the city has become. By March 2016, the number of new breweries in London increased by 24%, introducing 36 new businesses, and this figure has continued to increase.

Given that the amount of breweries in London currently hovers around 80, there’s no scarcity of occasions to attend, whether it’s attending a launch or accessing a range of beers from a much lauded brewery from outside the city - from Bristol, Manchester or even further afield. It’s been a tremendous year for beer events. Simply put, there just isn’t enough time to divulge them all.

A number of events this year have stood out, but have remained buried in my photo library and fuzzy memory. As the year prepares to take its final bow (or final blow, given the general tendency of 2016 up to this point), it’s fitting to revive the brief snapshots of these eclipsed highlights.

Goose Island: Block Party LDN (Saturday, 24 September 2016)

Goose Island Brewery hails from Chicago and is a macro, part of the AB InBev family, that took great pains to resonate with London drinkers in 2016. The first of these occasions was the inaugural London leg of their annual block party, a sold-out event held in RED Market, Shoreditch. Thousands of revellers were tempted by the promise of street food vendors, a live set from English band Everything Everything and a beer selection that included their much sought after Bourbon County Stout and vintage ales. Brewers were flown over from the windy city and John Hall, founder and CEO of Goose Island, welcomed press to sample the rare beers in advance of the crowds; this included their Sofie and Juliette, the former a saison and the latter a wild ale, and the elusive 2014 Bourbon County in addition to a variation on the original, the Bourbon County Templeton Rye.

The enigma surrounding the Bourbon County drew in a curious crowd of bloggers, journalists and industry friends. The turn-out was due to the rare opportunity afforded to sample the barrel-aged beer in the UK. Stories of people queuing for hours to get their hands on a bottle in the USA drifted across the pond and stirred up sufficient intrigue. 

The rich flavour of the Bourbon County is undeniable. The 2014 batch was redolent of smoked leather, both in aroma and taste, but in a highly pleasant way. With a viscous mouthfeel, this complex barrel-aged stout is loaded with flavours of tobacco, molasses, dark chocolate and espresso. Complex, deep and boozy, it felt worthy of an occasion. Boasting an ABV of 13.8%, it certainly merited one.

The event was a high point of the summer, attracting a group of people who were curious to take a peek behind the Goose Island veil. Given the strength of some of the beers on offer, memories of the event slip into a haze of oompah bands entertaining drinkers, the wafting smells of barbecue and even a moment of clarity where John Hall happily obliged to down an oyster or two in our presence.

This was not only an introduction for many to the Bourbon County, but also a preview of what was to come. 2016 was a momentous year for Goose Island generating a buzz around London, indicative of their intent to start pushing for a market share in the UK.

Goose Island:  Bourbon County Stout launch preview (Thursday, 24 November 2016)

Juxtaposed to the extensive LDN Block Party, Goose Island invited a small group of writers and journalists to sample 2016’s Bourbon County before it was launched for the first time in the UK. Due to be stocked in a single bottle shop in North West London and limited to 100 bottles on the day, the PR machine was in full-throttle. Based on photographs and videos taken on the launch day, Friday the 25 November, it appeared to work - there was a cluster of eager individuals who dedicated their morning to queue for a bottle, which retailed for £20.

On the evening, Joshua Smith, UK Brand Ambassador, and Tim Faith, Innovation Brewer, introduced the Bourbon County, explaining the origins of the concept and tasting notes. Before the 2016 batch was circulated, Tim explained the primary difference between this and last year’s variation: the 2016 has been pasteurised and is the first edition to undergo this treatment. This was due to several bottlings of the 2015 batch that were infected with lactobacillus-related bacteria and recalled; pasteurisation removes any chance of this happening again.

The 2016 batch was tasted alongside the 2015 edition for comparison – while the variations between the two were subtle, they were distinguishable. The 2015 Bourbon County was aged longer in the barrels and the depth of certain nuances and the mouthfeel varied accordingly; the 2016 had a fresher more herbal quality and lacked some of the potent richness of the former, which made it lighter on the palate. Hints of vanilla were more pronounced in the newer edition as well, imparting a mellow sweetness to the beer.

Again, the budget of a macro brewery allowed for decadent touches on the night, including free-flowing taps, KERB vendor Annie Mae's scooping out generous servings of macaroni and cheese and artisan donuts from St John’s Bakery. Goose Island representatives took questions then mingled with the crowd throughout the evening. Attendees were also treated to the new UK release of the Goose Island Winter Ale, but this was overshadowed with the palpable anticipation to tap into the Bourbon County.

Two different events where no expense was spared. It was therefore not terribly surprising when Goose Island announced plans for the opening of their first permanent European site in Balham, a Vintage Ale House. Whether or not Goose Island will continue to invest in these types of glitzy affairs has yet to be seen now that they have a UK base. But it's set a benchmark for UK breweries to perhaps emulate, so we might be seeing similar affairs from our homegrown (and still independent) talents in 2017.

I was kindly invited to both Goose Island events by their PR agency, Shine.