Yesterday on Chicagoist I published a full-length retrospective on Goose Island’s year since the announcement of the A-B InBev sale. I spoke with brewmaster Brett Porter, barrel-aging swami John Laffler, innovation manager Tom Korder, VP of sales Bob Kenney, and the man, the myth, the legend himself, John Hall. Frankly, I was surprised at how candidly these geese speak abut their thoughts and feelings, how similarly they understand the changes wrought by the sale, and how differently they cope with the uncertainty of what comes next. Laffler’s realism butts up hard against Porter and Hall’s unbridled enthusiasm. Korder straddles both sides, defending the brewery and the work it is doing now, but confessing he can’t possibly know what’s around the corner, and laying bare that geese are prepared to leave the flock if it goes the wrong way.
I was thrilled to have the talented Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting join me as photojournalist for the piece. He published a photo-heavy post of his visit to the brewery yesterday and another post on his barrel warehouse shoot today. The photo above, of a Lolita barrel overflowing with raspberries, is also his.
After spending a few more hours at the brewery with Porter than I had planned for this piece, I headed over to Haymarket for a talk on the politics of beer. Pete Crowley was asked by a member of the crowd if he still drinks Goose Island. His reply:
“If you’re angry that someone worked their ass of for thirty years and finally got a paycheck, you’re an asshole.”
For Crowley, as long as his friends are still making the beer and the beer is of the same high quality he’s used to, he’ll keep drinking it. But that’s not enough for some people. The discontent have made their voices heard, and their argument is solid. For many craft beer drinkers, the identity of the company is just as important as the beer they make. Being owned by a corporate parent that is perceived in the craft beer community as anti-competitive and stifling towards craft brewers, that keeps good beer out of consumers’ hands puts Goose Island on the enemy’s side–at least for those who traffic in such simplistic ideas.
What the critics are missing is that A-B InBev is not the same company that it was before the sale. Now it is a company that has embraced a stellar craft brewery by giving it loads of new resources and allowing the talented, visionary people who created its success to continue holding the reins–for now, at least. That is a major culture shift for A-B InBev, and it should present an identity problem for the critics just as vexing as Goose Island’s new ownership. Sure, there’s no telling how things will change. Look at Rolling Rock, Celis, and countless others whose identities or existence were quashed after being swallowed up by big beer. For me, that’s not a death sentence for Goose Island. There was nothing incredibly game-changing about what any of those breweries were doing on the scale of Goose Island’s innovation, barrels, fruit, or funky yeast. A-B InBev can’t do those things; they don’t know how, they’re too conservative, they move too slowly, and they operate on too large a scale. They want a small, nimble shop like Goose Island to do it under their umbrella, and to teach the big dog new tricks.
There are also people at A-B InBev who are super-passionate about beer and talented at what they do. A company as big as this one cannot possibly be as monolithic and evil as it’s construed in craft beer zeitgeist (see: Beer Wars). Talk to Brett Porter for ten minutes about the friends he’s made in the A-B InBev network since the sale and I’ll be damned if you walk away thinking otherwise.
Craft beer drinkers also overestimate the camaraderie, good will, and anti-competitive spirit between craft breweries. Laffler said it in the Chicagoist piece: it’s a nice story that’s obviously too nice to be entirely true. In my reporting and my work with partners in the industry, I’ve seen craft brewer ego rear its ugly head too many times to still believe the fairy tale. By and large, there’s more good will in craft beer than other industries, but seriously people, eff that noise.
I think it’s still too early to tell, but all signs point to good things. Decisions about the beer and the company are still made here in Chicago. Suggestions from A-B InBev–to use wood staves for example–are just that: suggestions. A-B InBev seems to appreciate that an organization with strengths like Goose Island’s needs to have a soul and a deeply rooted connection to its local community. In my assessment, Goose Island still does; it is a repository of knowledge and willing resource for smaller local breweries looking for help on plant design, yeast propagation, and label approval.
If John Hall can get his new brewery built in the next three or four years, it will be designed with Goose Island’s high end beers and focus on innovation in mind. When that happens, I’ll chalk this up as a success. On the other hand, if A-B InBev starts to interfere with innovation and quality, there are plenty of other Chicago breweries poised to do things as great as Goose Island has done. I’ll drink those beers instead. I bet the current flock of talent at Goose Island will also migrate elsewhere when that happens.
What is craft beer? Which companies conduct themselves ethically? What constitutes ethical business practices? Is it just about the beer, or the business as well? These are questions we all ask ourselves every time we order a pint. I encourage craft beer drinkers to be more nuanced and open-minded, less knee-jerk and black-and-white in their thinking about the major changes that are happening and are bound to continue in the industry and in our city.
Condemn me as an A-B InBev defender, a Goose Island apologist, or, better, prove me wrong. I’m all ears.