Chicago’s Craft Beer Pioneers: Goose Island’s John and Greg Hall

Posted on Posted in BeerAdvocate Mag, Chicago, Goose Island, Greg Hall, John Hall

Despite its name, the Goose Island Beer Company’s headquarters and main production brewery is not located on the miniscule, 160 acre artificial island splitting the Chicago River. Instead, the brewery’s Near West Side industrial location acts as a fitting tribute to the bare-knuckled nature of the city’s beer trade and to the dedicated family behind it.

Founder John Hall, of the paper packaging trade, opened Goose Island’s first brewpub on Clybourn Street in 1988, where the flagship Honker’s Ale eventually led to the opening of the Fulton Street production brewery and a Wrigleyville pub. Greg Hall, then a college student studying creative writing, joined his father’s team as a lowly brewer’s assistant, doing grunt work, before attending the Siebel brewing school and eventually becoming the brewmaster.

Together, the pioneering Hall’s make a formidable pair, balancing business acumen and a love of flavorful beer. Far removed from the days of Hex Nut Brown Ale, Goose Island now produces some of the most flavor-forward craft beers available in America. The brewery also runs one of the nation’s largest barrel aging programs, which sprawls out through warehouses on both sides of Fulton Street. In these wooden vessels sleep Bourbon County Stout and other rare treats.

Beyond building a solid portfolio of core brands, including President Obama’s favored 312, the Hall’s have focused much of their recent efforts on developing an eclectic line-up of Belgian-style ales. Devoted proponents of the joys of bringing beer and food back to its rightful place at the table, Goose Island hosts frequent beer dinners, cheese tastings, and has even brewed a beer for one of celebrity chef Rick Bayless’s restaurants.

Despite all of Goose Island’s successes, the city’s notoriously competitive distribution challenges in part led to the brewery’s decision in 2006 to enter into an equity agreement with the Widmer Brothers Brewery and the Craft Brewers Alliance, which has ties with Anheuser-Busch InBev. With their decision quickly came harsh words from self-appointed craft beer purists. Greg Hall quickly dismisses the criticism by noting that the big guys give them better access to market but “zero direction whatsoever” as to the beer. For others he jokes, “Can’t you taste the beechwood in there? Don’t you think it makes it taste better?” Simply put, “the beer is coming on a different truck now, but it’s the same beer from the same brewery and people.”

With such an enviable and bold line-up of top-notch beers, good luck convincing the happy patrons at the brewery’s pubs that they aren’t drinking craft beer. You’d get a better response rooting for the White Sox on the corner of Clark and Addison.

-Article appeared in Issue 49 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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