Well, it happened. Some of the people living in and around Chicago would have told you that it was only a matter of time until Goose Island allowed itself to be bought out, but now Anheuser Busch has gone and done it, for around $38 million dollars. Not too shabby for the shareholders.
Thus ends the long stretch of independence for Chicago’s oldest “microbrewery.” Founded in 1988 by CEO and owner John Hall, the two Goose Island brewpubs have been Chicago staples for a long, long time as far as craft beer is concerned. Personally, I’ve never been to one, as the Goose always came off to me as the big boy in town, and not a place one actually had to visit. Still, this is a sign of the times.
Might as well itemize the changes that people should expect:
- Greg Hall, John’s son, will be stepping down as brewmaster. Why? I have no clue. Head Brewer Brett Porter takes over. By the way–if I ran a brewery, the person with the job title of “brewmaster” would do whatever duties the “head brewer” does, and we would have fewer grand pooh-bah titles.
- Not much else will change. John Hall stays on as CEO, the brewpubs remain open, and AB sinks in a million bucks or so to expand production at one.
That’s about all you really need to know as far as “what is happening?” What’s important at this time, and will be increasingly important going forward, is to realize the impact of this move on the craft beer community, and what a true “craft beer fan” ought to do about it.
Ask yourself–if you’re a craft beer fan and don’t drink AB products, what is your reason for not doing so? Is it only because they produce products that taste like piss? If that’s the case, then this move really doesn’t mean that much to you. Now AB will likely be producing products that don’t taste like piss, under the Goose Island name.
But if your beef with AB goes deeper–if you abhor their business practices and ideology, and view them as the Evil Empire that so many of us do, well then, this is a blow if you also like Goose Island products. Because if you feel that AB is the enemy, you can’t rationally keep purchasing Goose Island beers. Realize what this buyout means–as majority shareholders, that means Anheuser Busch “owns” Goose Island–they will be the ones profiting from future success, not the people who built Goose Island into what it is today. You know, the people who gave up on their business to take the buyout. They allowed AB to go from only partial to majority ownership, effectively taking the future of the brewery out of their hands. Currently, AB has no announced plans for sweeping changes, but they now have to power to do just that on a whim.
I personally can’t see myself buying more Goose Island, knowing that AB will be pulling the strings. And that’s okay, really, because I never drank that much of it anyway. There are so many other breweries in Chicago now that are pushing the envelope in the same way that Goose Island did 10 years ago. I just ran a two-part series a few weeks ago extolling the virtues of breweries like Half Acre, Metropolitan, Piece, Revolution Brewing, Haymarket Brewing, Finch’s Beer Company, and Pipeworks Brewing. Those breweries are ALL LOCATED WITHIN CHICAGO. So please understand that this decision will not impact your ability, dear readers, to get great beer within the city limits if you stop purchasing Goose Island.
So yes. Realize that this means you’ll soon be seeing Goose Island commercials during the Super Bowl, and realize that suddenly Goose Island will be showing up on draft in formerly craft beer-less bars throughout Chicagoland. Honker’s Ale will be rebranded as the Windy City’s most drinkable brew. Oh it’s real. It’s DAMN real.
The buyout is indicative of something I’ve noticed in these regional brewers that have long-passed the “microbrewer” level–they never, ever seem to want to stop expanding. These companies are never happy to plateau and then have to find a way to continue expanding on their own, through the strength of their product. Instead, brewers like Goose Island or Kona in Hawaii decide they MUST keep growing and seek strategic partnerships with even bigger players to keep the bubble expanding.
I ask you–would it be so awful to not keep growing and expanding into other markets? Perhaps this is the most naieve business question ever posed, but is there a point at which expansion is no longer worth it, if it means partnering with Beezlebub to install a new production facility? Honestly.
Something that craft beer geeks and Goose Island defenders will surely point out about the move is that new brewmaster Brett Porter does have an awfully good pedigree–he was head brewer at Deschutes from 2005-2010 and was directly responsible for a lot of their great brews. Forgive me, though, if that doesn’t get me excited. Anheuser Busch has always hired technically skilled brewers–that doesn’t mean they get to work on producing great beers. It’s often been said that the best technical brewers in the game are those working on Bud, Miller and Coors, as those beers have a very small margin of error in production–do something wrong, and they might actually have a perceivable flavor. More than anything, I think the correct emotion you should feel for Porter is sad. He’s taking over a large craft brewer, will probably be held back by his owner, and will have even his good efforts shunned by people who hate his corporate masters. That’s a lose-lose situation. Good luck, dude.
So here we are. I can’t claim to feel actually “upset” about this news; “disappointed” is much more accurate. All you Aleheads out there–this is your time to get the word out, so please let everyone know about the changing of the guard in Goose Island’s ownership. The last thing we would want is people still buying the beer, thinking it was produced by owners with souls. As Brother Barley pointed out so many times during the recent Northern Brewer debacle, there are around 1,700 breweries in America, now, and there are so many independent ones. We are blessed to be living in a time where it’s completely unnecessary to have to support a company like Goose Island in order to have access to world-class brews.
UPDATE: In a Chicago Tribune online poll, 86% of responders say the deal is “bad news” for Chicago beer drinkers, 10% say it “won’t make a difference,” and a measly 4% think it’s “good news.”
UPDATE: Take a look at this letter to Goose Island fans from John Hall. I just don’t understand how he could stand there and say that this deal “will provide us with the best resources available to continue along our path of growth and innovation” with that shit-eating grin on his face. That is what complete and utter contempt for your key demographic looks like, people. He stands there and is practically PRAISING Anheuser Busch, the company he started his own beer company to combat, the company he’s gone toe-to-toe with in the Chicago market for years, the company that finally got so tired of trying to destroy him that it figured owning him would be easier. And not only is he here to tell you that he’s happy about it–he wants YOU to be happy about it too!
“Remember that enemy I’ve been fighting for most of the past two decades? Well we’re friends now! Come embrace him! He’s your new stepfather! I’m sure you’ll grow to like him just as much as you once liked me.”
UPDATE: Metropolitan Brewing posted on its Facebook wall that it will “always be independent, family-owned and operated.” Atta’ boys. Meanwhile, Pipeworks Brewing called the news “shocking.” At the same time, the vitriol on Goose Island’s page is shockingly intense. It’s at least 10 to 1, angry people vs. supporters. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this PR situation plays out. A Facebook group has also been started for people angry about the fallout.
UPDATE: There’s an interview with Greg Hall that just went up on Time Out Chicago (which is one of my favorite magazines and web sites, by the way), where he explains what he can about the decision. He also touches very briefly on his own departure, and the fact that he’ll be staying around in an “advisor”-type role for now, “a minimum of three or four days a month.” Is he aware that most months have 28 days or more? Anyway, he essentially says that at age 45 he figures he’s “already done the beer stuff” (his words), and plans to do other stuff. You know, with his new big pile of money.