About ten years ago I took a trip to Chicago, where among other things I spent an afternoon at the Art Institute. I’m no connoisseur or critic, but I appreciate art as a consumer, and love the history behind artists and their work.
Throughout my time that day, I found myself inspired by the Impressionists – a modern movement from the later half of the 19th century Paris focused on capturing the moment or impression of the eye on a subject without all the fine finish and detail that was the standard of the day. According to theartstory.com, the “idea was to capture a split second of life, an ephemeral moment in time on the canvas: the impression.”
I couldn’t help but think of this moment after trying Goose Island’s Matilda, a Belgian Style Pale Ale that, well, made quite an impression. The initial pour revealed a beautiful rust-amber color with a thick, rocky head. While classified as a Golden Sunrise hue on Goose Island’s website, I couldn’t help but think of the perfect sunset or even a brilliant harvest moon given the cloudy haze in the glass. While Belgian Pale Ales are noted for their range of tints, Matilda still impressed.
This ale doesn’t just look great, it smells and tastes delicious. A deeply complex blend of fruity aromas of pears or apples paired with toasty malts and spices made me think of the end of the summer when the fruit hangs overripe on the trees. I don’t usually expect much in terms of aromatics from a Belgian, but Matilda delivered.
Bursting with flavor, the toasted malts provide the body with depth while subtle notes of fruity rind and honey-maple play a supporting role. A spicy hint of cloves rounds out the flavor profile. A hint of hoppiness (26 IBU) adds a sparkle to the crisp, dry finish in the mouth. You can't help but think you are imbibing a seasonal, fall beer, but the Matilda’s lightness belies her strength. At 7.0% alcohol by volume, Matilda is no pushover, as she packs an unexpected punch with a smooth delivery.
At its essence, then, the Matilda ale is one of the great Impressionists.”
Her namesake, Matilda of Conossa (1046–1115), Countess of Tuscany, was a staunch advocate of the papacy against the Holy Roman Empire. She financed Pope Gregory VII’s military operations against Henry IV, and was steeped in political conflict throughout her life. As legend has it, she also founded the famous Trappist brewing Orval Abbey in Belgium. Inspired by the story (and the beer), Goose Island has produced this pale ale in homage to this intriguing woman.
In the Belgian Pale Ale market it is easy to get lost in the shuffle. Matilda, however, distinguishes herself both by staying true to her roots (toasty malts, fruits, spices) while pushing the limits of the style’s decorum (alcohol content, brilliant color, and clean finish). While some may shun the history, Goose Island takes it seriously. They continue to be “guided by our respect for the history and culture of beer as well our passion for, and innovation in, brewing.”
At its essence, then, the Matilda ale is one of the great Impressionists. She is well-versed in the form and content of what is proper and accepted, but she’s less concerned with coloring inside the lines. Better to create a sensation, better to capture a fleeting moment of greatness, with brilliant, intense color, vibrant aromas, and well-balanced flavors, than to churn out ordinary art.
Still, the art on the bottle itself is shockingly modern and minimalistic. The historical Matilda was deceptively cunning, a political schemer, a rich benefactress who doubtlessly played fast and loose with the rules. It’s too bad, too, because that’s the one thing that keeps this beer from being the “entire package,” the Impressionist beer par excellence.