“There wasn’t a single moment when the chummy, jovial craft beer industry became a battlefield of ‘us versus them,'” Josh Noel writes in Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business (Chicago Review Press, June 1). “It happened slowly. And then, seemingly, all at once.”
The line isn’t an introduction to his subject matter (it actually comes near the end of the book), but it does encapsulate it fairly neatly. Noel happens to be discussing the attempts of the Brewers Association to define craft beer—which has become an increasingly thorny question as more craft breweries have been bought by global beverage companies (often referred to as Big Beer). In the early years of the craft brewing renaissance, he says, the term was never really defined. “Craft beer was the underdog. It was flavor. It was creativity. It was peace, love, and collaboration. Everyone was included—except for Big Beer. There were no wrong answers. But when there are no wrong answers, there are no right answers, and the Brewers Association sought to correct that . . . “
The question at the core of the debate—and the book—is whether it matters who owns craft breweries. Once they cease to operate independently, do they still count as craft? Goose Island was the first to sell out to Anheuser-Busch InBev, in 2011, but the megacorporation has acquired another nine craft breweries since then, making the matter increasingly pressing. Noel’s focus is Goose Island, but he provides a broad and meticulously researched look at the big picture, including a history of Anheuser-Busch and its gradually evolving attitude towards craft beer. (Noel, a Tribune reporter, broke the news of the Goose Island sale and has been covering the story ever since.)
In fact, Goose Island’s ties to Anheuser-Busch go back to the early days of the original Clybourn brewpub, though they were less formal then: Goose Island’s head brewer quit in 1991 when he showed up to pour beer at a summer festival and saw a Budweiser banner over his company’s booth. Noel deftly demonstrates that founder John Hall, who’d been a high-ranking corporate executive before he decided in 1986 that a brewery would be his next project, didn’t get into the business to be an underdog; he always wanted Goose Island to dominate. Before selling out entirely to AB-InBev, he’d sold 42 percent of his company to Anheuser-Busch in 2006 (before it had itself been acquired by InBev). “He saw no victory in staying small or independently owned,” Noel writes of Hall.
But John Hall and his son Greg, who became head brewer in 1991 after the first one quit, did take risks. That “barrel-aged stout” in the title of the book isn’t there just to rhyme with “selling out”: Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, created back when barrel aging was all but unheard of, defied categorization when it was introduced in 1995 but became one of the most iconic beers in the country and helped to launch the barrel-aged beer trend. Similarly, Goose Island began experimenting with using the unpredictable yeast Brettanomyces to make beer at a time when most American breweries were just trying to avoid it (the yeast can cause beer to spoil), producing a Belgian-style ale called Matilda that’s still one of the brewery’s most popular beers.
Those beers illustrate how the way that craft breweries operate—creating a beer and then figuring out how to market and sell it—is entirely differently from the way megabreweries function. “Beer didn’t start as a recipe at Anheuser-Busch; it began as an idea around a conference table strewn with laptops and spreadsheets,” Noel writes. One of his greatest feats is organizing the book in such a way that it delivers a ton of information (including one of the best explanations I’ve read of the three-tier system of beverage distribution) without being dense or dry. Especially compelling is Noel’s account of John Hall announcing to his employees that he’s sold the brewery to Anheuser-Busch and the stunned, angry reactions that followed. Employees met by department to discuss details (upon hearing that they’d be subject to drug testing in a few months, Noel writes, some salespeople snuck off to smoke weed while they still could), then Hall reconvened the staff to say that the sale was a win for craft beer and for Goose Island. They had created something that AB-InBev couldn’t, which is why the behemoth had bought their brewery.
By 2017, though, with ten craft breweries in the fold, AB-InBev had become the second-largest producer of craft beer in the U.S. Which sounds a lot like winning. Does that mean Goose Island lost? By Noel’s account, it’s not that simple. Over half the book is dedicated to the years following the sale, which include some rough patches but also a cash infusion by the corporate overlords and significant growth for Goose Island, which was the point all along.
And all that beer they’re making—is it craft? Not according to the Brewers Association, which has defined craft brewers as “small, independent and traditional” (“independent” in this case means being less than 25 percent owned or controlled by a member of the beverage industry that’s not a craft brewer). Last summer they issued a seal for independent craft brewers to put on their beer labels, making it easy for consumers to distinguish what’s what. Goose Island, of course, does not qualify.