The English-style bitter was one of the Chicago brewery’s original flagship products.
In craft beer circles, this month has been anointed Flagship February. The concept is simple: Craft beer drinkers have become so enthralled by new and limited release beers that we should dedicate a month to the enduring, high-volume flagship beers that help keep craft breweries in business — like Sam Adams Boston Lager or my beloved Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale.
Part of the concern is that if these well-established beers become overlooked to the point where they no longer serve their purpose, they risk being discontinued, and a piece of craft beer history is lost. If you need a reminder that these kinds of things do happen, here’s one right smack dab in the middle of Flagship February: Yesterday, the site Guys Drinking Beer uncovered that fact that Goose Island has essentially stopped selling Honker’s Ale — one of the Chicago-based brand’s original flagships.
“Honkers Ale was one of the first beers to really put Goose Island on the map,” Todd Ahsmann, the brewery president stated via email. “[It] is not being discontinued and will still be served at our brewpubs.” Though that statement is technically accurate, it somewhat avoids the larger truth: Honker’s Ale will only be served at the brewpub locations. The once nationally distributed beer will no longer be sold anywhere in the U.S. either packaged or on draft. A Goose Island rep told me that Honker’s Ale will continue to live on in international markets.
Admittedly, Honker’s Ale is a brew whose time had passed. My most recent experiences with the beer had been seeing it on draft and thinking, “Really? Honker’s?” It’s not that Honker’s is bad: It’s always been an accurate recreation of a traditional English-style bitter — a bit maltier (and therefore darker and sweeter) and less aggressively hopped than a pale ale. Bitters also tend to let their yeast shine more, which gave Honker’s a fruity quality — but in an estery way, not the modern citrus and tropical way craft beer drinkers have become accustomed to.
Back when it was first brewed in the late 1980s, a time when craft breweries could be counted by the dozens instead of by the thousands, Honker’s Ale was something very different from all the lagers on the market. But by today’s standards Honker’s is overly traditional, far from in vogue, and not very exciting. Josh Noel, who literally wrote the book on Goose Island (titled Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out) described Honker’s situation in 2014 as “a dead style, and sales prove it.”
So why should we care that it’s gone? Outside of the general interest of a seminal American beer being essentially taken off the market, you don’t have to care at all. As most everyone knows, Goose Island is now owned by Anheuser-Busch anyway, so the extent to which this is any sort of “blow to craft beer” is pretty marginal. But it is always interesting to see shifting tastes in America’s beer scene. Thirty years ago, making an English bitter was somewhat revolutionary. Maybe if Goose Island put Honker’s Ale in bourbon barrels, people would still drink it today?