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Is Goose Island Still Craft Beer? (And Does Anyone Care?)

A new book tracks the brewery’s rise from Clybourn Avenue to an Anheuser-owned conglomerate.

Make way for goslings   Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

For a book about a company built on laid-back Midwestern values—specifically, Chicago’s Goose Island brewery and its 2011 sale to Anheuser-Busch—Josh Noel’s Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out is rife with conflict. 

Big Beer versus small craft. Global versus local. Commerce versus creativity. Chicago versus the world. It’s all at stake in Tribune columnist Noel’s meticulously reported tome, which tracks how little Goose Island got in bed with A-B’s Goliath, sparking a war of ideas in the beer business that has raged since. Chief among its conflicts: What does it mean to be a craft beer? Where is the line of authenticity? Are you a Chicago brewery if most of your beer is made in New York and Colorado, like Goose’s is today? And do consumers even care?

If you’ve got a stake in these questions, Noel’s book is required reading. (And if beer is nothing more to you than a commodity on a grocery shelf, well, the converse is true.) Noel spends Part One of the book taking a loving look at the roots of American craft brewing. He rehashes Goose’s late-’80s origin story—including a now-apocryphal tale in which founder John Hall, then an exec at a cardboard box company, is inspired to start a brewery by a story in a Delta inflight magazine—right down to the stench of burning tires that accompanied the first batch of Bourbon County Stout.

Those passionate about craft beer will love Noel’s sepia-tinged account of a time when IPAs and stouts, bitters and Belgian tripels, were nothing more than cute anomalies in a world dominated by light, fizzy lager. Noel susses out wonderful details of Goose Island’s infancy, like Hall modeling its first brewpub after TGI Friday’s and the departure of the company’s first brewer (forebodingly, due to Budweiser being sold from a Goose Island stand at a street festival).

Noel also finds that even from the beginning, Hall envisioned a day when he’d sell Goose Island; he just figured Heineken’s name would be on the check. Part One of the book comes to a natural end on the morning of March 28, 2011, when Hall tells a room of furious employees that he’s sold their beloved microbrewery.

In Part Two, Noel pulls back the curtain on Anheuser-Busch, focusing on how the Saint Louis conglomerate became one of the largest companies in the world. Among their tactics: corporate consolidation, cost-cutting, bullying beer distributors, and buying a slew of craft breweries between 2013 and 2017, including Seattle’s Elysian, Colorado’s Breckenridge, L.A.’s Golden Road, Asheville’s Wicked Weed. The lot of them signed up, sold out, and endured varying degrees of retribution from the craft community.

Little Goose Island endures a nightmare along the way. As A-B chews through new and bigger craft acquisitions, the newly corporate Goose Island makes mistake after mistake, getting pilloried for each misstep (Google “Goose Island sellout” and you’ll get 70,000 results). A-B’S big-beer tactics fail miserably in the craft beer market. The company rolls out 312 Urban Wheat nationally behind Hall’s back; uninspired spinoffs like Urban Pale Ale tank; top-down recipe rollout leads to boring brews, like the quickly discarded Ten Hills IPA. In the lowest point, a bad batch of Bourbon County Stout costs the company more than a half a million dollars.

The tale even has a tragic figure: Greg Hall, son of founder John, a world-changing brewer and pioneer of barrel-aging beer. By the book’s end, he’s quit Goose, moved to Michigan to make cider, and lost 51% of his business to A-B for a sum of zero dollars (not before drunkenly pissing in a few corporate beer glasses at a party shortly after the sale). As Noel reports, A-B guaranteed $7 million in debt to Virtue Cider, Hall’s company, to take a majority stake in Goose in 2015. It’s now wholly owned by A-B.

All told, Noel’s is a shockingly honest book about an industry where actual journalism is rare—especially given the beverage business’s $350 billion economic footprint. Noel tells Goose Island’s story through the receipts, the sales numbers, the emails, and the time-stamped text messages, delivering what is, in retrospect, a clear look at big beer’s bungled first attempt to take over craft brewing.

Most beer writing today extends to rehashing press releases and gushing over the latest beer fest; that an objective, warts-and-all retelling of a beer-business tale exists at all warms my heart. Anecdotes as simple as an employee pitching a Goose-branded cell phone case into the trash on the day of the sale speak to the heart of Noel’s book. He covers tons of ground, but keeps enough of an eye on the humanity of Goose’s story that his book is more than a novel-length business study.

Goose Island helped turn Anheuser-Busch from a Bud Light fire hose into one of the largest sellers of craft beer in the world. It’s not hard to imagine a time when A-B makes more IPA, stout, and pale ale than anyone else out there. I can even see a world in which the King of Beers—the company represented by Spuds MacKenzie, a belching frog, and many a bikini—becomes consumed by craft, brewing more IPA than Bud Light.

That’s definitely a ways off. But when it happens, you won’t have to be a craft beer purist to appreciate that it all started from a little pub on Clybourn Avenue.

Karl Klockars is the author of Beer Lovers Chicago and the co-creator of GuysDrinkingBeer.com.

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