In future decades, a crotchety old man version of myself will look back on my early experiences with Goose Island and think “this beer isn’t want it used to be.”
At least in present day – while putting the AB InBev takeover and the mess of its aftermath aside – it’s easy to say that Goose Island still produces some really fantastic beers. And all joking aside, if there’s one thing Ab InBev is good at, it’s reproducing the same form of quality over and over again, so maybe there’s nothing to worry about at all. Or is there?
Goose Island’s Pepe Nero is part of the brewery’s “Vintage Ale” series, which also features well-known, Belgian-style brews like Sofie and Matilda. Pepe Nero itself is a Belgian farmhouse ale, which scores a 85 on Beer Advocate. Let’s hit the jump to see how this black saison performed.
As expected, the pour of Pepe Nero was a deep black, with light piercing the edges at the top of the beer, making for an amber hue. Like any other well-crafted saison, this brew showcased a healthy, foamy head the showed off more of that brown/amber color.
What impressed me most – at least initially – was how crisp the beer smelled. The esters of the Belgian yeast cut through to my nose very easily, giving off an almost spring breeze cleanliness. I wonder if the use of peppercorns in the brewing process had anything to do with this.The characteristics of peppercorns run the gamut of possibilities, but I imagine that if used correctly, it could help emphasize the typical banana/cherry esters of a farmhouse ale like this. Overall, I thought the smell was pretty straight-forward in a non-exciting way.
A quick note about the hops used in this beer: Pilgrim and Saaz never really show up in a typical hop way with floral aromas or any citrus. However, both offer secondary characteristics that fit in perfectly with this kind of beer – earthy spice notes such as cinnamon or clove.
Where this beer really shined was with its flavor. Each sip offered a light mixture of chocolate up front from the roasted black malt with a touch of peppery bite, perhaps from the peppercorn itself or the use of rye and crystal rye malts. Rye malts usually give a beer a dry, spicy flavor, which fit in perfectly to what is going on with Pepe Nero. That little bite from the malt is washed away by the intensity of the beer’s carbonation, thanks to the Belgian yeast. At times, Pepe Nero felt so carbonated it was like drinking a freshly opened soda. The bubbles tingle the tongue while fruity esters give off banana and cloves – is this a trace of the hops? The beer never turns sweet, until the absolute end of the glass.
I’m sure others may experience some of the traditional farmhouse “funk” that may come with a style like this, I did not. I did let the beer warm over 45 minutes or so, from which I got lots of roasted grain flavors and even some smokiness from the rye malt. I kind of wished that played a larger role throughout the beer’s characteristics, not just when the liquid warmed. The final couple sips offered marshmallow sweetness, which was a welcomed finish.
Overall, I thought Pepe Nero was a really well-balanced hybrid that offered a unique beer experience. I don’t know if I’d rush to buy it again, but I’m glad I had it. As always, I encourage you to try it yourself, if you can find it!
Pepe Nero stats:
- Malts: Pilsner, Rye, Crystal Rye and Black
- Hops: Pilgrim and Saaz
- Adjuncts: Peppercorn
- ABV: 6 percent