Time will judge the Goose Island deal
Brewmaster Brett Porter checks a tank at the Goose Island Fulton St. brewery. (Tribune photo by Antonio Perez / March 28, 2011)
I didn’t order it — the thick, black Goose Island brew was close to $40 for a 22-ounce bottle. But 4,400 miles from Chicago, there it was: a little piece of home.
If I hadn't known it already, I realized then that Goose Island deserves a place at the head craft-beer table. With New Belgium, Dogfish Head and so many others, Goose Island has made American beer daring, exciting and, most important, delicious.
Most craft beer drinkers have a gateway beer, the one that gets them appreciating the depth beer can hold. Being a local boy, Goose Island’s Honker’s Ale was the beer that hooked me. When I moved to Baton Rouge years back, my dad sent me a case of Honker’s Ale with a note along the lines of, “Never forget where you came from.”
Since starting with its Clybourn Avenue brewpub in 1988, Goose Island has played its hand brilliantly. It put itself on the map with two easy-drinking beers: Honker’s Ale, a low-alcohol English-style pub beer, and 312 Urban Wheat Ale.
You’re unlikely to find many beer aficionados sipping much of either, but who cares? They are Goose’s biggest sellers and allow the brewery to pursue edgier flights of fancy.
Now based on Fulton Street, Goose is widely credited for pioneering barrel-aged stouts, starting with that Bourbon County I saw in Helsinki. As the name implies, the stout is aged in bourbon barrels. The result is profound for the soul and on the palate: a spicy, rich, high-octane sipper with chocolate and coffee flavors that keep you warm on a winter day.
Goose has since added coffee, vanilla and “rare” (extra-aged) versions of Bourbon Country to rave reviews. Sure, they cost $22 or so for a four pack (or in the case of the Rare Bourbon County Stout, close to $50 for a 22-ounce bottle), but they have pushed American beer to new heights. Countless breweries age stouts in barrels these days. If Goose hadn’t done it first, someone else would have. But they did, so the credit belongs to them.
The brewery also has helped further the Belgian-style ales in America. It is hardly alone on this front, but deserves credit for doing the style well and pushing it as a food accompaniment. Matilda is arguably the best-known of that style, but Pere Jacques, Lolita, Juliet and Madame Rose are worth exploring as well.
All this leads us to Monday’s announcement that Anheuser-Busch was taking over Goose Island for almost $39 million. Goose Island will no longer be Goose Island, Chicago’s independent brewer. It will be Goose Island, brought to you by the maker of Budweiser.
The question in the minds of beer drinkers: Will the acquisition change the good work that Goose has done? There’s only one answer at this point: Maybe.
Both Goose and Anheuser-Busch were saying the right things Monday about leaving Goose to do what Goose does best. But the cynics and craft-beer lovers — segments that, to no surprise, intersect widely — were dubious. Blogs, comment boards and Twitter posts lit up at news of the sale, most reactions decrying the perceived death of interesting Goose Island beers.
But there is an encouraging sign of Goose Island’s future: The person replacing brew master Greg Hall, who says he is leaving to start a new project, isn’t an outsider. Head brewer Brett Porter, who was lured last year from Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery, will fill his shoes.
With A-B’s deep pockets, Goose now has the opportunity for a sorely needed expansion of its production capacity. In fact, the beer giant plans on spending $1.3 million on increasing brewing capacity that will include new fermentation tanks. This should make its brews accessible to more beer drinkers throughout the country.
But the real test will come in two to three years. Will Porter still be there? Will Goose continue to unveil avant garde brews every year, such as Pepe Nero, a new black Saison-style beer that few others have tackled? Or the upcoming Big John, a stout aged with cocoa nibs?
The truth is that this deal breaks new ground in the craft-beer world and the fallout, whether it turns out to be for better or for worse for beer drinkers, is unknown. Rock band the Flaming Lips have been with a mainstream music label -- Warner Bros. Records -- for years, and it's still producing gloriously weird music. The corporate parent hasn't gotten in the way.