Brewers aim for consistency, but mistakes create fan favorites.
I once threw away a bag of spinach that had been part of a produce recall. And I warned family and friends to check their egg cartons last summer when a nationwide recall affected more than half a billion incredible edibles.
So why did I rush to the beer store last weekend with the sole intent of buying a recalled batch of brew before it was taken off the shelves? Chalk it up to curiosity and research.
Plenty of other beer enthusiasts had the same idea. Paul Hayden, manager of the Wine and Cheese Place in Clayton, Mo., said he was prepared to issue refunds for three batches of Goose Island Sofie that the Chicago brewery recalled last week. No one asked for their money back. Instead, Hayden found himself ringing up sales of the tainted beer to at least half a dozen people.
“I have never sought out ‘bad’ beer before, but I love Sofie and any variation on it, official or not,” said Justin Phillips, one of Hayden’s customers. “I’m excited about what kind of flavors will come from [the recalled batches].”
Goose Island brewmaster Brett Porter stressed in a statement last week that the affected batches — about 6,000 cases distributed in the Midwest, according to the Chicago Tribune — posed no health risks. Rather, Porter said, some of the beer was “outside of our desired taste profile,” an issue that brewery employees discovered during a routine quality-control tasting.
Porter identified the culprit as coming from a few of the wooden barrels used to age the beer, and he said he’d figured out a way to keep the problem from happening again. Sofie is a blended Belgian-style ale that relies on wild fermentation, an often unpredictable brewing technique that can make consistency difficult to maintain.
Last summer, Goose Island recalled six batches of Matilda, another Belgian-style ale that undergoes wild fermentation, because it contained a nonharmful bacteria called lactobacillus that contributed a sour flavor. As with the Sofie recall, the affected bottles of Matilda were not a safety concern, and drinkers clamored to get their hands on some.
John Steckert of St. Louis calls the infected Matilda “a great accident.”
“The result has been a much drier version of the beer that has gotten noticeably sour over time and almost every step of the way has been more enjoyable to me,” Steckert said. “I still have two bottles left that I’m itching to open because it’s gotten so good.”
The recent Sofie accident may prove to be less successful. I tasted two Sofie samples over the weekend — one that was bottled Feb. 11 and was part of the recall, and one from a “normal” batch bottled Jan. 29.
Color and clarity variations were immediately apparent. The normal Sofie poured a pale-golden color with a lot of clarity, while the “off” bottle had a darker, more orange hue and was hazy.
Real Sofie tastes slightly fruity, slightly spicy, with a zesty carbonation that results in a champagnelike finish. The Feb. 11 sample had muddled aromas and flavors, including some rancid butter and vaguely sour elements, and dull carbonation. I couldn’t choke down all of the contents of the 22-ounce bottle, leaving about half of it for a beer-loving friend to try.
Tasting recalled beers can be a fun experiment, so long as the brewery assures that doing so poses no health risk. But consistency is a hallmark for any producer of consumer goods, which is why I give credit to Goose Island and other breweries that act quickly to ensure that “off” beer doesn’t reach the lips of too many customers.
“While I may not like McDonald’s or Budweiser, one of the main keys to their success is consistency,” Steckert said. “Craft beers are given far more leniency with consistency, but there is a tipping point with any product.”
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