Honker's Ale: A better bitter
English bitter is among my favorite styles of beer. I can’t really think of any least favorite styles off-hand, but bitter tends to be what I think of when I think of beer. It’s rare to find any games being played with it by over-imaginative brewers. It almost always tastes, smells and looks like beer. No apples, no oranges, just beer. But there still is such a wide range of varieties, a good bitter can be found to suit just about any circumstance. And don’t all circumstances call for beer? There happens to be a respectable microbrewery in Chicago that pumps out a decent example of the genre. Honker’s Ale is the signature beer out of Goose Island Beer Co., and for good reason.
The label says, ‘For those who want more.’ Whatever it is one may want, or what that may even mean, what you’re going to get with this beer is a little more of a bitter than usual. Bitters can range from very light and watery to strong and flavorful. Honker’s is a fine example of one that leans toward the latter, but doesn‘t go over the top. A run of the mill bitter is generally going to be the cheapest thing on draft at any English pub you’re lucky enough to stumble into; you’d be lucky indeed to find one much better than Honker’s. Anywhere.
The beer looks beefy right from the start. It pours coppery, with a sudsy white head that’ll continue to coat the top until the pint is finished. It has a more prominent malt smell than is typical of bitters, but enough hops tucked in to supply some floral, and grassy undertones. Balance was obviously what was being sought here, and that is apparent before the first sip.
And after the first sip. The earthy hops spring out front, then are quickly followed by a caramel malt finish. Somehow, just the opposite of the aroma where the malt is on top, but the same balance is maintained. The medium body holds a welcome touch of creaminess that’s absent in most bitters. However, the overall taste is a little soft, and lacks much of any aftertaste. Since there’s no reminder, there’s nothing left to do but take another swig. A solid, but not overly powerful, 5% alcohol rewards you for doing just that.
Like all bitters, Honker’s is best cool -- not ice cold. This is an especially good beer for the chilly months. It’s a steak-and-potatoes ale, not surprising coming from Chicago. It would go well enough with that sort of fare, but I tend to think of it more as a pre-meal drink. Nice to have in the refrigerator when a quiet night in is called for, but it’s versatile enough to stretch to almost any occasion.
Goose Island has managed to produce an English bitter that’s better than many British ones. Since there are more hops in the flavor, I’d just call it an American bitter. Just another instance of American ingenuity improving upon an already good idea. Bitters are generally just for drinking, not analyzing, but Honker’s is complex enough to savor. Straight from Chicago in a proper brown bottle, it’ll be much fresher and a little cheaper than most other English bitters you’re likely to find. Above all, it’s as good as or better than the rest anyway.