It’s hard not to notice Goose Island beers. In the seven years since the Chicago-based brewery was purchased by Anheuser-Busch it’s gone global. The IPA is found on tap and on shelves around the globe. It’s annual release of Bourbon County Stout, once a darling among craft beer connoisseurs, continues to draw lines each Black Friday. The brewery in many ways has become a textbook example of what happens when a large brewing company buys a smaller, beloved brand.
For many who watch the beer industry, work in it, or have made it their hobby, March 28, 2011, the day John Hall sold his brewing company to the makers of Bud Light, is the dividing line between “before” and “after” in the modern story of beer.
What followed the sale of Goose Island was a rash of other sales: Elysian Brewing Co., Wicked Weed, Lagunitas, Revolver, Full Sail, Clown Shoes, Golden Road, Oskar Blues, Breckenridge, and many others over not so many years. Anheuser-Busch made the majority of the purchases, although rivals Heineken and MillerCoors also got in on the act, along with private equity companies. The lines of ownership are blurred thanks to smaller stakes in companies or deal that simply slipped under the radar.
We, as beer drinkers, like to know who makes our beer. It’s one of the things that made the modern beer renaissance so appealing. Our beer, the flavorful recipes we downed pint after pint, didn’t come from anonymous factories. It came from down the street or the pub we sat in. We could meet the brewers, get to know their families, become friends, and generally help a fledgling industry along.
It’s one reason why, when a brewery chooses to sell to another company—especially a large brewery—we take it so personally, and why the insults from disappointed consumers (usually online) can come out so freely and harshly.
Today, craft beer fans can scoff at Goose Island. They will say the recipes have changed, that the beer has lost its soul. That it’s corporate or tired. But those barbs don’t do the full story justice. Because when you consider what happened before the sale, you can see just how important Goose Island was to the developing brewing landscape and what John Hall, his son Greg, and so many others who rotated through the brewery walls did to positively affect the beer we drink today.
When it comes to writing about beer, what we’ve mostly had for the last several years are broad strokes history books, tasting books, niche category books, cookbooks, travel guides, or nerdy, scientific looks at ingredients or processes. With the release of Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business (Chicago Review Press, $19.99) by Josh Noel the writing game will change. I firmly believe that folks will look differently at how beer should be covered.
As a reporter, I’m in awe of the research and access Noel, a long-time writer for the Chicago Tribune, put into the nearly 400 pages. This isn’t simply about one brewery, it’s a detailed portrait of more than 20 years of tulmult, experimentation, and success in beer. Noel weaves in stories of brewers who made the bones at Goose Island long before starting their own venture or becoming common brewhouse names. This includes folks like Firestone Walker’s Matt Brynildson or Perennial Artisan Ales’ Phil Wymore, and countless others that, like me, when you read this book, you’ll be surprised to see pop up. The book gives a voice to forgotten folks and dredges up stories that would otherwise be whitewashed by public relations firms.
Noel doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. Impeccably sourced, his book doesn’t pull punches. Be it the well-known incident of brewer Greg Hall urinating into beer glasses at a Chicago bar after the sale, to the corporate structure and decisions that led Goose Island to where it is today. Throughout the book Noel goes deep into the story of Goose Island and why it matters today in American Beer.
This is an honest look at an important brewery that even now continues to change the landscape. Beat writers spend a lifetime hoping to create a book only half as good as this one, and drinkers will finish reading with a deeper appreciation for beer history, business, and the future. Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out is the masterful result that happens when a proper newspaperman gets his teeth into a story.
Find a copy online or at your local, independent bookseller.
This first appeared on Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine’s website.