Philly’s Goose Island: Worth the Gander

Head Brewer Tim Caron reflects on the brewhouse’s standing in the City of Brotherly Love

 

At 32 years old, Tim Caron goes to work every day feeling like he’s won the lottery.

As the head brewer at Philadelphia’s still relatively new Goose Island Brewhouse, Caron gets to live his dream of creating tasty and inventive beers while meeting the demands of an increasingly aware consumer market.

“It’s been a wild ride,” Caron says, recalling the brewpub’s first full year in business.

Nestled in a reawakened eastern corner of the Northern Liberties district, the brewpub has found good neighbors in The Fillmore concert venue across the street and the Punch Line Philly comedy club next door. The block is seemingly becoming a livelier entertainment destination by the minute.

Philly’s Goose Island Brewhouse is only the second brewpub that the growing beer giant has opened outside of Chicago, its place of origin. So, needless to say, there is a lot riding on this venture—much of it on Caron’s shoulders. That said, the head brewer maintains the aura of an easy-going people person and seems very much at home here as he talks about his mission and the road that brought him to Goose Island.

Although he studied politics in D.C. at American University, he says that it’s beer that is the driving force in his life nowadays.

“There’s a reason I don’t work in that industry anymore, and why I’m working in this one,” Caron says. “It’s the passion. This isn’t only my job and my career, it’s my passion.”

That’s what inspired him to develop the Bullpen Session IPA, a New England-style beer. At 4.8 percent ABV, it’s a light alternative to heavier IPAs, yet it still delivers a citrusy punch of hops. This is Caron’s “liquid tribute” to the Phillies, and it will be poured at Citizens Bank Park through the rest of the summer.

“The flavor of Chicago meets the spirit of Philly at our brewhouse that serves up the unexpected,” claims the Goose Island website.

Perhaps there is some truth in that advertising: The brewhouse bar feels unexpectedly cozy—as comfortable as well-worn blue jeans—like it’s been in shipshape operations for years, not just one. Yet, there is still a sparkle of newness to the pub’s brewing system in the adjacent room, the light above shining off the system’s nearly pristine stainless steel.

The beer is also unexpected. It would be difficult to imagine the Goose Island facilities in Chicago brewing many of the beers on the Philly menu. The East Coast tastes are somewhat different.

For instance, one of the popular local offerings, the appropriately-named House AF, is another New England-style ale. At 5.1 percent ABV, this one is slightly heavier than the Bullpen. Classic hops like Centennial, Cascade and Amarillo give it that orange citrus character.  It’s a best-seller here, Caron says, as he pours us two samples.

At the sturdy bar, we sip and talk, and Caron offers some history on Goose Island, some insights on its present status, and perhaps a taste of things to come.

“This isn’t only my job and my career, it’s my passion,” says Tim Caron, head brewer. Photo courtesy of Tim Caron

O&A: It sounds like you landed your dream job. Is that fair to say?
Caron: Yes, it couldn’t be much better. It’s the best of both worlds: I get to work on my passion projects and also have the backing of a really successful brewery.

I look at that as a huge opportunity in that there’s a few beers that I’ve made that have been really well received here. If that keeps up through the year, I can go to the folks in Goose Island Chicago and say, “Hey, this has been really pretty popular in Philadelphia; can we do this as a one-off or a future seasonal?”

It really is an opportunity to put my imprint not just on this location and this city, but to potentially get my beer out to a much larger audience, which is every brewer’s dream.  To have people drink and enjoy my beer, that’s the most incredible thing that can happen for me.

O&A: When Goose Island got its start in Chicago, there weren’t a lot of brewpubs brewing beer in a neighborhood location. Places were either a brewery or a pub. So in that sense do you feel like what you are doing here is part of the Goose Island DNA?
Caron: Absolutely. Goose Island started in 1988. John Hall, our founder, embraced the English-style pub atmosphere with on-site beer. That was his vision. The original Goose Island location on Clybourn Avenue is still in operation today and has been almost continuously operating for more than 30 years.

We started as a brewpub. We expanded citywide in Chicago, then regionally and now nationally. But we’ve come back to our pub roots in opening this Philadelphia location.

O&A: Why did do you think Goose Island picked Philadelphia to build their only other U.S. brewpub outside of Chicago?
Caron: There’s really good synergy between Chicago and Philadelphia. They are cities where people like to eat, they like to drink, they take their sports a little too seriously [smiles], so there was a lot of commonality there.

Also, it was a business decision. Philadelphia is one of the biggest Goose Island markets outside of Chicago. And [our local distributors] saw the benefit of having a pub here versus [those distributors in] other locations that I think they looked at.

O&A: I look at this dining menu on the wall, and I see the brewpub looks to be really big on the farm-to-table philosophy. Is that something that translates with the beer as well?
Caron: Yes, one thing I was told when I was hired was, “Embrace Philadelphia: embrace the culture, embrace the sports teams and also embrace the suppliers that work in your area.”

So I buy malt from Deer Creek Malthouse, right here in Pennsylvania. We’ve worked with Rabbit Hill Farms and their malts, out of New Jersey.

The beauty for me as a brewer [is that] in having a kitchen attached to our space, we get access to fresh, local produce. We’ve done two or three beers with local fruits that we’re bringing in.

Using local purveyors is important to us.  It’s a cool thing to get to know these people, not just as an email address that you send your order to, but also as someone who comes into the pub and drops off the malt themselves and then comes back three weeks later when the beer is finished. That’s been a really cool experience.

We’re also starting to work with Proximity Malt, down in Delaware. I know you guys are a Delaware publication. The first two beers made with Proximity malts are going into the tanks; one’s going this week, and the other is next week.

Goose Island Brewhouse features a mix of beers brewed nationally in Chicago and those created locally by Caron. Photo InfluencePhoto

O&A: It seems like the New England-style beers are very popular right now—such as those of Tree House Brewing Co. out of Massachusetts and Heady Topper in Vermont. How much of that do you see as an influence right now in the beer world?
Caron: It’s a huge influence. We have people right here in our own backyard who do a lot of that style of beer. Tired Hands Brewing [out of Ardmore, Pennsylvania] is a great example. They are big influencers in this area.

And that’s the kind of thing I’ve been hired to do. Goose Island isn’t making any Hazy IPAs out of Chicago or at any of our other facilities. But in this location, where we’re serving most of the beer directly over the bar, it’s an extension of our R&D department. It’s kind of a pilot system for me to be able to play around and do things that embrace the culture, and the attitudes, and the desires of Philadelphia—as opposed to [those in] Chicago or nationwide.

We can be really agile here in this space and do things that are driven towards pleasing the people who come here.

O&A: And Goose Island is encouraging you to do that?
Caron: Yes, that’s been the edict from Day One. They said, “We hired you, you live in this city, you’ve worked in the area, and you know what the customers want better than what we know what the customers want”—because you can’t make that decision from behind a desk in Chicago.

There’s no better feedback loop than being able to finish my job in the brewery and walk 20 feet out to the bar and hear what customers think about the beers and ask them questions about what other styles they would like to drink.

O&A: It must be a big honor to be the guy that Goose Island chooses to brew their beer in Philly. You are “the guy.”
Caron: It’s definitely a big honor. I didn’t expect it. I saw the job posting and I kind of applied on a whim.

Honestly I went through all the rigamarole. The online application process [required me] to upload all these things and put everything in the right field—and I almost gave up halfway through. My wife was like, “You put this much time into it, at least finish it.”

I really thought they were going to have way better candidates, that they might bring somebody in from Chicago. But lo and behold, a few days later, I got a phone call, then a few interviews and then all of a sudden it was a real thing.

And it’s been awesome.

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