Until very recently, I rode the Green Line to work every day. Occasionally, I would notice the billboards at a stop on the West Side were experiencing an advertising blitz, where one brand bought up all the ad space to ensure they didn’t escape notice. Earlier this summer, for example, the Ashland stop was filled with pictures of Goose Island’s 312 Urban Wheat Ale. The posters advertising the new, dry-hopped version of the beer shouted the fact that it was brewed just a few blocks away at Goose Island’s Fulton Street Brewery. While that may be true, overall production of Goose’s largest selling beers, and most of the brewery’s decision-making, are taking place elsewhere.
Chicago Tribune reporter Josh Noel details this change in Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anhueser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business. Noel’s title broadcasts the book’s structure. Part one, “Barrel-Aged Stout,” details Goose Island’s rise from a small, Chicago beer maker to one of the nation’s most popular and respected craft breweries. “Barrel-Aged Stout” is itself a reference to Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, which, upon its release in 1995, effectively created the category of bourbon barrel-aged beers. “Barrel-Aged Stout” is celebratory, as it details Goose’s rise and resilience over more than two decades as a Chicago-based independent brewery. Noel describes the founder John Hall and head brewer Greg Hall as a savvy, creative father-son duo, whose combined brewing talent and business acumen allowed them to survive the craft beer boom and bust of the 90s, then thrive as one of America’s most popular and respected breweries in the aughts. Noel makes the story of the brewery’s rise accessible while still doing justice to the complexity of making top-notch beer. His explanation of the Brettanomyces yeast and its importance to crafting many of Goose’s most-loved beers, for example, is a master-class example of popular reporting on a technical subject.
Contrast that celebratory tone with the second half of the book, “Selling Out,” when Noel focuses on the sale of Goose Island and AB-InBev’s subsequent acquisitions, leading them to own 10 “craft” breweries, strategically located in the US’s largest cities and craft beer hot spots. Not that you’d know that as a consumer. Noel details how AB strategically avoids broadcasting that information. “Selling Out”—again, thoroughly reported—details AB’s aggressive, and occasionally illegal, attempts to corner the US beer market. Noel is not totally one-sided, and gives AB-InBev credit for strategic business decisions when credit is due. Likewise, he gives equal voice to John Hall’s motivations for selling Goose Island and fans’ feelings of betrayal when the sale was announced. That being said, it’s hard to read “Selling Out” and not feel taken advantage of as a beer consumer. At times, I had to pull myself out of my righteous indignation to remind myself that we’re talking about beer here. In the world of corporations bullying smaller competition at the expense of consumer choice, it’s small potatoes. Or would that be hops?
For readers familiar with the craft beer industry, the book is nevertheless sure to provide some new and interesting details. I had no idea, for example, that one of the first breweries that AB-InBev approached after acquiring Goose Island was Kalamazoo’s Bell’s Brewery (a brewery whose summer wheat ale, Oberon, sparked my own love of craft beer). Meanwhile, Chicago readers will surely enjoy how rooted the “Barrel-Aged Stout” chapters are in the city’s recent past. Noel notes, for example, that recent Big 10 grads who knocked back beers at the bars on Southport preferred wheat ales to pale ales, helping to inspire 312. The anecdote not only offers a glimpse into Goose Island’s marketing strategy, but reveals how the city’s beer culture influenced a now national brewery. Of course, the book’s local feel fades in later chapters. That transition accompanies the story’s shift towards AB-InBev’s grand strategy, and underlays the lost charm of turning an independent brewery into one of world’s largest beer-making brands.
Noel chose to write about Goose Island because, in his words:
Only one brewery is the story of craft beer: Goose Island. John Hall, a former box company executive, launched the brewery in ’88, when there were just two others in Chicago and fewer than two hundred nationally. Goose Island flourished through the 90s. Then it struggled. It grew more. It struggled more. It innovated. It took risks. It grew still more. And then it sold out.
Noel didn’t create a great story. Like any great reporter, he found one. Then, once he found it, he investigated it until he was ready to tell it. It’s a story that’s worth your time, albeit best enjoyed while sipping on a cold one.