Draught Diversions: Book Review: BARREL-AGED STOUT and SELLING OUT by Josh Noel

Title: Barrel Aged Stout and Selling: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business
Author: Josh Noel
Publication Date: June 2018
Publisher: Chicago Review Press

I’m digging back to my book reviewing roots for the latest Draught Diversion. Although the majority of my reading falls in the realms of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, as soon as I learned of this book, it was probably the book I was most anticipating reading this year. On to the review…

The Craft Beer movement has been alive and well for a few decades now. Flavorful brews created by smaller breweries mostly regional in nature created as a reaction to Big Beer. With any movement or segment of a market, there are pivotal moments. Moments that, on a time line, can be pointed to as a division between What Happened Before and What Happened After. In Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out, author Josh Noel examines that “moment” as well as the history of what led to that moment and the immediate fallout in which “craft beer enthusiasts” are still living. That proverbial moment? When Anheuser-Busch InBev bought “Chicago’s Brewery,” Goose Island in March 2011.

Publisher’s Landing Page: Chicago Review Press for the book:

Goose Island opened as a family-owned Chicago brewpub in the late 1980s, and it soon became one of the most inventive breweries in the world. In the golden age of light, bland and cheap beers, John Hall and his son Greg brought European flavors to America. With distribution in two dozen states, two brewpubs and status as one of the 20 biggest breweries in the United States, Goose Island became an American success story and was a champion of craft beer. Then, on March 28, 2011, the Halls sold the brewery to Anheuser-Busch InBev, maker of Budweiser, the least craft-like beer imaginable. The sale forced the industry to reckon with craft beer’s mainstream appeal and a popularity few envisioned. Josh Noel broke the news of the sale in the Chicago Tribune, and he covered the resulting backlash from Chicagoans and beer fanatics across the country as the discussion escalated into an intellectual craft beer war. Anheuser-Busch has since bought nine other craft breweries, and from among the outcry rises a question that Noel addresses through personal anecdotes from industry leaders: how should a brewery grow?

As the title suggests, the book is quite evenly divided between “Barrel-Aged Stout,” which chronicles the rise of Goose Island and “Selling Out,” which chronicles Anheuser-Busch InBev’s purchase of the brewery. Soon after that purchase, AB InBev itself launched into a spending spree gobbling up regional craft/independent breweries that in hindsight, seems like a very calculated move, but at the time was a very jarring few years.

From the thought that inspired John Hall to open a brewery/brewpub, to determining the name, to building/construction of Goose Island’s brewpub, through its growth and John’s son Greg becoming brewmaster, Josh Noel does a fantastic job telling the story of just why Goose Island grew so much and gained an initially local and loyal, then national reputation as an innovative brewer. It is a fascinating story, to be sure.

Noel wonderfully conveys the drama surrounding everything, from the initial planning, to the development of the beers, to the rise of Greg Hall as an icon of good taste in Chicago. In many ways, the Goose Island story pre-AB InBev is a story of the American Dream, or rather the second act of an American Dream. Ingenuity, intelligence, innovation, and hard work funneled into a market ready for the product the Halls were creating helped to make Goose Island into a standard bearer for well-crafted and sought-after beer.

In this story of Goose Island, John, the father and man who started it all, comes across as the sharp, business-minded head who loves his company and employees. Greg, the son, is the heart and innovator who loves the beer and brewing. John had the know how from a business perspective and Greg emerged as the one who gave the brewery its taste identity. It is easy to forget, or many to not even be aware of just how cutting edge Goose Island was back then now that we live in a world where Goose IPA is on tap next to Bud Light everywhere, a world where 312 Urban Wheat Ale is nearly as prevalent in  bottles and Bourbon County Brand Stout is now at the center of a national beer holiday far beyond the confines Chicago where, arguably, the most important American Stout was first brewed. Something many people grabbing a four pack of 16oz pints of IPA or sharing a bomb of the latest Barrel-Aged release either don’t know, or know of only as a mythical thing of Craft Beer past.

In the book, Noel succeeds at making the reader a fly on the wall as a witness to Goose Island’s growth. It is painted as a loving picture, homage, and history with a bit of that aforementioned myth-making.

Then in March 2011, Goose Island Brewery was purchased by Anheuser-Busch InBev.

The second half of the book, “Selling Out,” takes a turn. Not in quality, by any means, but the tone of the story shifts from almost heartwarming tale of gumption, excitement, and growth to cold and calculating. Not that John Hall wasn’t a smart business man, but making beer is a business beast and Anheuser-Busch InBev can be compared to a great tamer. An idea that pervades the Halls and those on the Goose side of the sale: at AB InBev marketing drives the beer; at Goose, the beer always drove the marketing. The story here for the Halls goes from hope in the future with at least a minimal understanding to a unknown future in an unknown world.

The book is more than just about the sale of Goose Island to AB InBev. Noel meticulously builds and artfully renders a swath of history that may be unknown to many into a fully gripping story. Or of some of the more “inside baseball” elements of the beer industry like the importance of distributors.

The story of the sale of Goose Island is prophetic of what would come after, tragic for what is left behind in its wake, and through the Halls, their confidants, and friends, an ultimately human story. Breweries like Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer/Samuel Adams, Bell’s, Firestone Walker, Lagunitas, Boulevard Brewing (among others) get name checked throughout, showing just how far of a rippling effect March 2011 had on breweries and the people who work at them and started breweries since. Some of those breweries were courted by Big Beer (SABMiller and AB InBev are just two courtiers), some of the brewers at Goose Island went on to success at some of those other breweries.

As I said, I’d been anticipating this book for quite a while as I began following Josh (@hopnotes) on twitter late last year as I became more entrenched in the Craft Beer section of social media. On January 1st, Josh began tweeting what would be the first chapter of the book and I was hooked. This is an immensely well-researched book containing information pulled from over 100 interviews including no less than John Hall himself, the man who started Goose Island Brewing Company.

In the end, two takeaways stand out for me, at least on first reading:

  1. For years, especially since March 2011, discerning beer drinkers have cast AB InBev as the Evil Empire. That is a fair and largely just assessment. But at this point, they are almost beyond Evil (and Good, for that matter). AB InBev, especially in the years between 2011 and 2017 when it bought 10 regional craft breweries, is more akin to a force of nature. A hurricane cannot be stopped, an earthquake can only be survived. That becomes especially clear in the second half of the book.
  2. Early in the book, Noel points out (more than once) that John Hall thought he would sell the brewery at some point, but “probably to Heineken.” It almost makes you wonder if John Hall ended the “story” of Goose Island just where he intended it to end.

Either way, the American Beer landscape is far richer for John and Greg Hall’s contributions, both at Goose Island and the ripple effects they created in the industry. In the Hot! New! Landscape of American Craft Beer it is very easy to haze over just how different the world of beer and going into a bottle shop was a decade (or even 7) years ago, in terms of choices of breweries and styles and exactly who those breweries are.

Candid, factual, gripping, emotional, educational, eye-opening, fascinating – all these things and more. Anybody who appreciates well-crafted beer will enjoy this book. Readers looking for a unique peek into how a multi-billion dollar conglomerate operates (regardless of your beer preferences) will be fascinated to see how an economic landscape can change in just a few short years.

Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out is an un-put-downable book that tells a gripping story of perhaps the most important post-Prohibition handful years of Beer History in America. This is definitely a book that will remain within easy reach for reference and for re-reads.

Highly, highly recommended.

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