11 November 2010

Wild Goose Beer: 1989-2010

Erin Biles, the public relations manager of Flying Dog Ales in Frederick, Maryland, confirmed the news with an e-mail tonight:
What you've heard is true. Aside from a few more batched of the Wild Goose IPA, Flying Dog will no longer produce any Wild Goose beers. Quite honestly, our brewery is currently at capacity on Flying Dog beers alone.
And with that announcement, the door finally, ignominiously, and quietly closed on a beer that changed many a life--mine included.  People in the Northeast in the 1980s who had been shown that beers besides Guinness could have flavor by the likes of Samuel Adams and Pete's Wicked Ale discovered the English-tweaked flavors of both Oxford Brewing's beers from suburban Baltimore and Wild Goose's beers, helped in part by articles on the new brewery popping up in the Baltimore Sun and other newspapers.

Ironically, the shutdown occurred almost to the day as the brand reached 21 years of age--the drinking age in the United States.

Wild Goose began operation in early November 1989 in a section of an abandoned oyster cannery facility in Cambridge, Md. not far from where U.S. Route 50 makes its right-angle turn towards Ocean City.  It was one of many Peter Austin systems installed by Alan Pugsley, a British native whose brewpub systems used open fermenters and were acclimated to the use of Ringwood yeast.  For better or worse, Ringwood and the Peter Austin systems would be a signature of many pioneering breweries on the Eastern Seaboard, including the Baltimore area's Wharf Rat (1992) and Red Brick Station in White Marsh (1997).

Initially, production and publicity was considerably limited.  If you asked locals where the brewery was in early 1990, you received quizzical looks or head-scratching.  Finally, if you drove around back of the crumbling cannery, you might see some cars parked, a freshly painted door, and a plume of steam spewing from a vent pipe, and smell the soon-to-be-familiar aroma of damp malt mingling with hops and the air from the nearby Choptank River marshes.  Quizzically, you might knock at the closed door, and finally be greeted by an enthusiastic employee, who would shake your hand and offer you a beer from the staff refrigerator in the front office!  (This was, in addition to good public relations, an excellent way to "dispose" of  "short-filled" bottles as well....)  During one of my early visits and "ten-cent tours," my friend and I inquired about purchasing more beer to go with us on the rest of our Eastern Shore junket; they replied that they didn't have a license to sell the beer and pointed to the nearby liquor store back on Rt. 50.....   ".......... but if you really don't mind a little sediment in your bottles, we have a few of these beers to get rid of...." and they handed over three six-packs of Samuel Middleton's Pale Ale, then being brewed for the Middleton tavern in Annapolis, all with a little sediment "problem."  (Those were probably, unintentionally, my first bottle-conditioned beers.)  The "free beers" would yield to a more "professional" tasting bar set-up after maps to the brewery started appearing on the bottom of six-pack holders.

Wild Goose marketed itself as "The Only Beer For Crabs," an allusion to the native crustacean of the Eastern Shore.  The beer had supposedly been formulated to pair with crab.  In addition to the Wild Goose Amber, they also produced a golden ale which they dubbed Thomas Point Light Golden Ale, maned for the iconic screwpile lighthouse south of Annapolis.  Unfortunately, a serious perception problem soon arose: customers unaware of the lighthouse name took the "Light" to mean a low-calorie beer, which Thomas Point Light Golden certainly wasn't.  The name was re-tweaked to "Thomas Point" after a year or so, and later still the beers became Wild Goose Amber and Wild Goose Golden.  You had to be careful which six-pack you grabbed, if you cared that much--it seemed a lot of patrons didn't.  Wild Goose also undertook to brew a number of contract brews, including bottling house brands for the Middleton Tavern and Baltimore's Wharf Rat (which, although it would soon have its own brewpub, never has had a bottling line).

In 1992, Wild Goose introduced the first of its annual Snow Goose, a traditional British-style brown ale brewed with chocolate malts and roasted barley produced as a winter seasonal.  In spite of a rather simple recipe and a restrained 5.9% alcohol level, the beer was quickly loved by many beer drinkers looking perhaps for a respite from the rich spiciness of other holiday beers like Anchor's Our Special Ale.  Although its alcohol and recipe in no way lent itself to aging in the manner of barleywines like Thomas Hardy's Ale, a few aficionados--this writer included--would hold aside a few bottles for future consumption, finding many of the flavors richer and more complex after a spell of bottle conditioning.  Later in the 2000s would come Pumpkin Patch Ale, an pumpkin-and-spice ale that perfectly straddled and melded malt, spice, and pumpkin flavors.

In 1994, Wild Goose embarked on an expansion plan, hoping to expand to a 50-barrel brewing plant with annual production of 20,000 barrels.  Sadly, this expansion was to be the undoing for the brand's independence.  The Cambridge brewery was unable to increase its market share to pay for the expanded production, and fell into financial arrears.  Frederick Brewing Co. a brewery founded in its namesake Maryland city in 1992, swooped in to purchase the Wild Goose brand and assets in 1997, concurrently with purchasing Baltimore's Brimstone Ale from its founder, Marc Tewey.  As one former Frederick employee once told me, "Frederick went through all the motions of ripping up all the stuff out of Cambridge and moving it all to Frederick, and then never did a damned thing with them."  To this day, I don't know what actually happened to the Frederick equipment.  The former Cambridge brewery site on Washington Street would burn and ultimately be demolished, though at last report the foundation still remains in a commercial district, across the road and abandoned rail tracks from a Wawa convenience store and gas station.

Frederick had expanded quickly since opening in 1992, relocating to an industrial park, adding capacity and taking on debt at about the time the rapid growth rate of microbrewery sales began to slow.  The brewery had the capacity to produce 170,000 barrels of beer per year at one point, but shipped just 31,500 in 1998.  Facing a declining market share, Frederick took a substantial gamble on Hempen Ale--a beer brewed with marijuana seeds as an adjunct--and lost.  Frederick also reformulated the recipes of Wild Goose to its house yeasts and 50-barrel JV Northwest brewing system, complete with centrifugal filtering--a change which robbed the beers of their essential Ringwood character.

In August 1999, Snyder International, a Cleveland-based group that owned the Little Kings and Crooked River brands (contract-brewed in Frederick at the time) bought the bankrupt Frederick Brewing Co. and continued production.  In 2006, Flying Dog Ales of Denver, Colorado, which had been contracting a substantial amount of its national production at the Frederick facility, stepped in to purchase the Frederick facility from Snyder International.  In a bold move meant in part to distance it from the troubles of the Frederick beer brands, the new owners rebranded the facility the Wild Goose Brewery, and even brought back in Jim Lutz, a former Wild Goose executive, as part of the company sales force.  Lutz once told me, "When I was in Cambridge, we bought a hundred firkins to start production and distribution of real ale.  When I came back on board [in 2006], we could find two of them."

Flying Dog made some noble, albeit ultimately token, attempts to keep the Wild Goose brand alive, even mounting a large logo sign on the side of the brewery and reintroducing the original yeast strains as best as possible.  Market share continued to erode, however, in spite of some last valiant efforts, including a redesign of the packaging.  But Flying Dog then took the bold move of shutting down its Denver facility and moving all production to Frederick.  Eventually, increased production demands for Flying Dog mandated the passing of the Wild Goose brand--well, that and sheer neglect of the brand.  In the past year and a half, only Snow Goose, Wild Goose Oatmeal Stout, and Wild Goose IPA made their presence known on regional shelves and taps.

The Delmarva Peninsula now has several breweries, including the robust Dogfish Head, the brewery for Fordham/Old Dominion, the new Evolution and 16 Mile breweries in Delaware, and even the Eastern Shore Brewing Co in St. Michaels to fly the flag on Maryland's side of the peninsula.  But Wild Goose flew the skies first and led the way for them.

More reminiscences from Tom Cizauskas here.


Anonymous said...

Has anybody ever chronicled Peter Austin's full contribution to the history of American brewing? How many drinkers, I wonder, have drunk beer made in Peter Austin-supplied kit?

JohnM. said...

Not sure for how much longer, but at present snow goose is on tap at Max's. Probably one of the last opportunities to sample it I would guess.

RIP Wild Goose brewing...


In 2001 or 2, I walked into a wine and beer store in Annapoli, Maryland. There, above the beer cooler I noticed several ss firkins, sawed in half, used for displaying beer price posters. The manager told me that Frederick Brewing had offered them gratis.

Brewers Alley in Frederick also managed to get several firkins from FBC in the late 1990s, but for real (ale) use.

The Oriole Way said...

Always sad when a long-lived (and apparently well-loved) brand dies, but this was probably a very easy business decision for Flying Dog. Just as happened with Clipper City, it's really hard to maintain a portfolio of brands as a craft brewer.

Kevin said...

A a guy who really learned most of what I know about the art of brewing during my time at FBC I have to say it really makes me sad to hear that Wild Goose is gone. when I was there money was already pretty short but I thought we did everything we could do to make a quality product. I think it also sucks that Blue Ridge label is gone. Snowballs Chance and Subliminator were two of my favorite beers when I got into craft beer and lead me apply for a job at Frederick. I need to add a slight correction, Pumpkin Patch came out before Flying Dog was an owner of the brewery. In fact I remember serving it in bottles at my wedding in September of '05.

Anonymous said...

This is sad to hear. I was always happy to have such a local brewery and did enjoy this brew. I enjoy Flyingdog but this move just knocked them down a rung in my book.

Unknown said...

Snow Goose. Ave atque vale.

Unknown said...

Wild Goose Brewery was started in my hometown in 1989. I was fortunate enough to visit the original brewery in Cambridge when I returned home from military service in 1991. Once bought out by FBC, the beer was never the same as they didn't bring the open fermenters to Frederick. Subsequent ingredient changes and apparently the salt content of the municipal water in Frederick as compared to Cambridge meant the beer was never the same. Amber, Nut Brown, and Snow Goose were good quality, great tasting beers. Truly sad news for a Cambridge, MD,. original....

Meyney1970 said...

I started working at a Maryland liquor store in 1986 when I was 18. I became a wine and beer expert quickly and felt the growing pulse of the import and micro-brew surge on the market. When Wild Goose beers came out it was awesome because here was a local brew trying to do it the right way. I eventually moved to Virginia in 1993 where I later became the on-premise sales manager for a mid-sized wholesaler. I was in charge new brand development and brought Wild Goose into our portfolio. The Snow Goose was always my favorite and by the time I left my wholesaling job I had created cult following for Snow Goose on-tap in a central VA. The realities of market swings, questionable business moves, and pressing competition has often been the death knoll of many a good brew.

Unknown said...

I just decided to check in on the brewing situation in Frederick on a whim.

I was a co-founder and the CEO of Frederick Brewing through its sale to Snyder International in '99.

I really appreciated the Wild Goose history provided here but a couple of things aren't quite right. After purchasing Wild Goose, FBC did move the open fermenters to the brewery in Frederick, along with the Ringwood yeast strain. And we religiously used both for a considerable length of time. The open fermenters were still in use when I left in Sept of '99. But we also used the Ringwood yeast in our larger, closed fermenters. It did fine and we always retained pure Ringwood strains for starters in the event of a mutation, infection or other problem.

We did use our more sanitary and efficient filtration system on the Wild Goose beers but the beer had been filtered long before we started making it.

We ran several blind tasting panels with Wild Goose employees and their hand-picked fans, beer writers and customers. These panels tested Cambridge-brewed samples against Frederick-brewed samples for as long as the Cambridge-brewed samples held up.

The consensus every time was that no one on the panel could differentiate between open and closed fermented beers or Cambridge and Frederick brewed beers.

Anyway, I just wanted WG's fans to know we utterly respected the heritage and quality of WG and did everything we could to honor that.

I left the area late in '99, following FBC's co-founding brewer, Steve Nordahl and Wild Goose mastermind, Jim Lutz, by several months. I'm not sure what happened to the product after that but I sense that it wasn't great.

Not a huge surprise, given the brewery was then outfitted to handle production of Little Kings (an event I thankfully did not stay around long enough to witness).

Along with that other Kevin, I am sad that some of the better Blue Ridge products are lost to history. Anybody out there ever get to taste our "Black Forest Gump?"

That draft-only and waay tasty beer was not reproducible. It cam about when a night shift brewer at the original brewery in downtown Frederick hooked a hose from a batch of Sublimator he was making to a fermenter already full of Stout (or vice versa, it's been a long time).

I was giving a tour at the time and noticed that a flood of beer was spurting out of the fermenter. Turns out the brewer had taken a break and was calling his girlfriend.

Figuring we had a blend of two great beers and didn't need the fermentation space right then, we decided to let it ferment and see what happened. It was fantastic!

So we kegged it up and offered it to some of our better pub accounts. Sadly, we could never fill their re-orders.

K. Brannon