Chicago’s Craft Beer Pioneers: Goose Island’s John and Greg 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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Craft Beer, All Growed Up…

All grown up and ready to don his crown, the prince busily makes plans for the future. All hail the new king of beer. If you read the beer press lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that craft beer has conquered all. The Brewers Association’s recently released half-year numbers demonstrate that despite the economic downturn, craft beer sales continue to boom by double-digits, to the enduring shame of macro beer producers. Without question, no other brewing industry segment can touch craft’s fire.

But before we start the next round of mutual back-slapping and pint raising, America’s smaller brewers should stop and consider the decidedly unsettled course of American beer’s future. We have lived through the Age of Extreme and experienced the Era of Collaboration, reveling in years of unparalleled success. Yet the toughest times lie ahead as craft brewers move from the lighthearted teenage growing years to the increasingly responsible adult decades.

For one, succession issues will continue to pose challenges for brewers small and big. As brewers continue to merge or purchase their craft brethren (and competitors), brands and brewing histories may become diluted or lost. In the wake of the recent transitions of Anchor, Magic Hat, Old Dominion, and others, consumers are learning the painful truth that beer is a business and craft brewing is not some fun hobbyist project. Your favorite beer of today may become a fond memory tomorrow in someone else’s brand portfolio.

Growth also brings its own challenges and has already contributed to some serious identity crises in the industry. After years of predicting the event, the Boston Beer Company appears poised (if not already there) to exceed the magic two million barrel mark that the Brewers Association uses to define the size limits for craft brewers. While many recoil at the suggestion of disinviting Sam Adams from the craft beer party, the truth is that many craft brewers are far from small operations. How the industry defines itself, while caring for its pioneering elders will continue as a rolling boil.

Beyond trying to define “craft”, the industry’s success also challenges the consumer’s understanding of what the whole industry stands for. As growing pains set in, brewers find themselves stretched increasingly thin. Due to demand and quick sales, brewers send beer to markets thousands of miles from home, sometimes while their local patrons can’t find their favorites. To date, only a handful of brewers (craft or not) have chosen to brew their beers in distant breweries to satisfy new markets, but this trend will rise. But if Goose Island brews its Honker’s Ale or 312 in New Hampshire, is it really still Goose Island? Many consumers don’t think so.

Craft brewers also have to contend with the increasing interest of macro brewers in their profitable and growing market segment. As I predicted several years ago, Blue Moon has become the nation’s best selling craft/faux-craft beer. It’s a sales juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing, especially with MillerCoors’ creation of the new Tenth and Blake Beer Company spinoff. Expect the big guys to be more aggressive as they spend more time playing in the craft beer sandbox.

Finally, craft brewers need to get their own houses in order. In the very first issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine, I took craft brewers to task for refusing to put bottling or brewing dates on their packaging. While we have seen some progress in recent years, freshness dating continues to be a problem that many of the industry’s biggest players refuse to adequately address. While I personally love Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and included it in Great American Craft Beer, I shouldn’t have to go to the brewery’s website and enter a batch code to find out when it was made. A few stale bottles have caused me to rethink buying this longtime favorite and many others from craft brewers that should know better.

–Article appeared in Issue 48 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Anheuser-Busch, InBev, and the Changing Face of American Beer…

The King is dead, long live the king. After more than a year of rumors, analyst whispers, and convenient press leaks, corporate brewing giant InBev finally made its move on America’s largest brewery. Founded as a small St. Louis brewing operation in 1860 by a German immigrant, the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company would in less than a century grow to become the country’s dominant brewing business and one of its most iconic brands.

In the days following InBev’s offer for A-B, even otherwise detached Joe Sixpacks tipped their recliners forward and took notice of history being made before their damp eyes. The unthinkable had occurred; the American eagle had fallen prey to a foreign hunter. Once laying claim to half of the American beer market, A-B has long served as a national monolith, imposing its 100-percent share of mind campaign from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The brewery’s television ads dominated the airwaves, its brands omnipresent on the taps of every neighborhood bar and in the cooler at the corner gas station.

A-B’s executives, including the recently installed August Busch IV, tried to put a brave face on a fight they knew they would lose. Wielding xenophobic appeals and feeble court actions, the tough, “not on my watch? rhetoric quickly crumbled in the face of a stagnant stock price, a failure to embrace international expansion, and a tumbling dollar that made the giant brewing company affordable.

What happens after this anti-climactic, first round knockout is anyone’s guess. While InBev has publicly stated that it will not immediately sink its cost-cutting teeth into A-B’s bloat, including its twelve American breweries, this pledge rings hollow for the long term. Ironically, America’s loss may very well turn out to be the world’s gain as Budweiser is now set to become the combined brewery’s international flagship brand. Dethroned as America’s king of beer sales by sibling Bud Light and then later demoted by Miller Lite, Bud will enjoy a renewed focus in a bevy of new markets around the globe. Cousin Stella Artois will inevitably take a backseat to an international icon known even in the world’s smallest villages.

The bigger and lesser understood concern is how the deal, which will create the world’s largest brewery, will affect smaller outfits. We know that Pabst and the Boston Beer Company are left to fight over which brewery is now the country’s largest American owned brewery, but the toll on craft breweries is difficult to determine. While Anheuser-Busch InBev will undoubtedly continue to wield considerable distribution power, better beer fans can rejoice that this deal happened in 2008 and not 1998. A decade ago, craft brewers fought fruitless daily battles for the attention of wholesaler and beer buyers. Today, many craft brewers can’t find the time to field calls from people lined up to bring their flavorful and well-priced beers to new markets.

While hard core beer geeks would argue to the contrary, the loss of Anheuser-Busch should also be seen as a setback to the cause of better beer. Driven by the success of craft brewers, A-B has been a high profile advocate of flavorful beer in recent years. Through its highs and lows, A-B’s attempt to elevate and enhance beer’s public image with its “Here’s to Beer? campaign was a welcomed addition to the good beer praising craft chorus. And while this campaign was scheduled to end within the next year, it’s difficult to picture InBev replicating the promotion in the future. We can also expect the company to reconsider the future prospects of the newly formed Michelob Brewing Company and its line of flavorful beers.

One final consequence of the deal, assuming it survives regulatory review, is that breweries such as Old Dominion, Widmer Brothers, Redhook, and Goose Island will become distant members of the global InBev family. In InBev’s drive to focus on its core brands, these historic craft brands may find a cool reception in the boardrooms of Leuven, Belgium.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue VIII of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Why Midwestern Beer Rocks…

When beer enthusiasts ponder great American craft breweries, their minds often wander to the coasts. West Coast brewers are deservedly renowned for their experimentation, especially in all areas hoppy. On the East Coast, craft brewers boast big reputations for their extreme acts and style defining efforts. But when it comes to dishing out respect, Midwestern breweries get very little for their impressive efforts.

I have a public confession to make. I think Midwestern breweries make the best beer available in the United States today. That’s a bold statement to be sure, but let’s take a closer look at this underappreciated beer region to test its accuracy. For starters, the Midwest has some of the strongest and longest operating craft breweries in the country. While names such as August Schells, Boulevard Brewing, Great Lakes, and Summit may not ring in the ears of ardent beer geeks, these breweries have provided strong leadership for the industry and solid, diverse beer lineups at reasonable prices. In stark contrast to their brewing compatriots on both coasts, these Midwestern breweries, and many others, appreciate the worldliness of beer. In contemplating their portfolios, these brewers recognize that the brewing playbook extends beyond the comfort zones of brewing and the hum-drum ubiquity of the big three: blonde, pale, and wheat ales. The lineup of top-notch lagers produced by Midwestern brewers, such as the Capital Brewery with its four seasonal doppelbocks, is unparalleled elsewhere in this country.

I’m not saying that the Midwest lacks its share of beer geek friendly breweries, far from it. Some of the region’s leading breweries, including Bell’s Brewery and New Glarus Brewing, bring a reserved, steady hand to the idea of extreme beer. From Larry Bell’s anniversary batch series and his former ’10 Stouts of November’ campaign to Dan Carey’s classic fruit beers and his phenomenal ‘Unplugged Series,’ Midwestern brewers know that pushing the envelope means more than simply turning the hop and alcohol dials up to 11. If the edge is where you need to live, then you can always try Three Floyds, Surly Brewing, and Kuhnhenn Brewing to get your adventure fix.

When I think about beer in the Midwest, one state clearly comes to mind, and I don’t mean Wisconsin. While the Badger State boasts dozens of excellent craft breweries, Michigan is perhaps the region’s most impressive brewing state. While it has but one brewery (Bell’s) in the top 50 craft brewers by volume, Michigan is home to more than 70 breweries and brewpubs, just behind Wisconsin for sixth most in America. The litany of Michigan’s small, local breweries and pubs include Short’s Brewing, the Livery, Dark Horse, Founders, New Holland, and of course, Jolly Pumpkin. With perhaps less flash than their coastal counterparts, these breweries produce beers that are anything but reserved.

Midwestern breweries also appear to better appreciate the value of providing fresh beer close to home. While many fledgling craft breweries struggle to contain their wide-eyed expansion plans, many of the breweries mentioned here practice a very different distribution system. Beyond the small breweries, which service their local communities, even the big guys do things a bit different. The Summit Brewing Company of Saint Paul sells nearly 90-percent of its beer in its home state of Minnesota. Boulevard Brewing was modeled on the historic local brewery system and limits distribution of its 130,000 barrels to the Midwest. The best example of this careful growth method is New Glarus, which famously pulled out of all other markets, including Chicago, because it could not make enough beer for its home state of Wisconsin.

With all of the region’s successes and the outstanding and diverse beers available, I think it’s about time we give Midwestern brewers the praise due to them. They’ve got my vote for best in the industry.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue VI of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Goose Island’s Clybourn Brewpub To Close…

A sad day for Chicago beer lovers as the Chicago Tribune is reporting that Goose Island’s first brewpub, located on Clybourn Street in Chicago, will close at the end of the year due to an inability to renew its lease. Although Goose Island’s production brewery and Wrigleyville pub will remain open, this is a bad day for beer in Chicago. Chicago remains one of the biggest American cities to have so few brewpubs, and this is yet another loss. As the location also houses some of the Siebel Institute’s activities, it will likely see change as well. I’ve spent some time in the pub enjoying GI’s beers and will have to make a return trip before it closes for good.

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