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.

Draught Diversions: December 2017 Beer Pours

Draught Diversions is the catchall label for mini-rants, think-pieces, and posts that don’t just focus on one beer here at The Tap Takeover. We hope you don’t grow too weary of the alcohol alliterative names we use…

With December, the Winter Ales and Stouts are filling the shelves. Many filled my glasses and comprise a majority of the new beers I enjoyed this December.

As has been tradition with my wife and I the last decade or so, on the first Saturday of December, we tag our Christmas Tree at a local farm with our friends and celebrate with brunch and adult beverages. This year, my friend had a Six Point variety pack, including Resin, their Double IPA and Sweet Action their blonde. I’ve come to realize I’m just not a fan of much of Six Point’s output. Later in the week, at a work dinner, I had a fine New Jersey brew: Philoso-Rapper, a Belgian Strong Golden Ale from Departed Soles out of Jersey City, NJ.

I stopped at Flounder and picked up a growler of Delta House Stout, their tasty interpretation of a Milk Stout, to bring to a gaming session. At that same session I had some Viking Blood mead, also quite good. I need to explore the world of mead more thoroughly. One of the pleasant surprises of the month was a solid Pilsner from Industrial Arts Brewing, Metric, which was part of a recent Wegman’s Craft Your Own 6 Pack.

I dove fully into the Christmas/Winter Ales having this year’s version of Anchor’s Anchor’s Christmas Ale beer and Rogue’s Santa’s Private Reserve. Anchor’s was good, but I enjoyed previous recipes/iterations more, the 2017 batch was stronger on some spices that didn’t quite work for me. Rogue’s revamped Santa beer, on the other hand, I found to be excellent. A sweet cherry Dark Strong Ale, the beer was perfect as a dessert beer and reminded me of Ommegang’s Rosetta, but without the sourness. Also from my 6 Beers of Christmas Future (2017) was  Two Roads’ Holiday Ale one of the more unique holiday / Christmas beers I’ve had. There’s an interesting malt/sweetness to the beer that really sets it apart.

The Thursday before Christmas was the monthly Brews and Board Games at Lone Eagle. This brewery continues to impress me with how the beer has been getting better and more consistent over the past year. First up was their Abbey Road Dubbel, a fantastic interpretation of the classic Belgian style. The second beer I had was one of their staple brews, 007 Golden Rye Pale Ale, the first Rye beer I’ve had in a while and the first one I can remember enjoying this much. I think I need to reassess this style, particularly the German interpretation known as Roggenbier.

Abbey Road Dubbel on the left, 007 Golden Rye on the right

Finally, Christmas arrived. Well, Christmas Eve, which is when we get together with my side of the family. Christmas Day is spent with the In-laws. Fortunately, I’m not the only person who enjoys craft beer either day, so for years I’ve been bringing special beers to share on both days. I started off sharing possibly the best beer I’ve had all year with my dad, Goose Island’s 2017 Bourbon County Brand Stout. As I have the past few years, I brought a local growler to share with everybody, in this case it was Demented Brewing’s Gluttony and incredible coffee stout that is perfectly balanced. Just as good (if not better) than Firestone Walker’s Mocha Merlin. Unsurprisingly, the growler did not survive the night. My dad also brought out a bomb of Founders Doom the IPA entry in their Barrel Aged series. This is one of the best, smoothest, most balanced IPAs I’ve ever had.

On Christmas Day, I had the Corsendonk Christmas Ale my folks gave to me as a gift the night before. I can taste why this is such popular, traditional beer around Christmas Time. This is a very solid interpretation of a Belgian Strong Dark Ale. The other Christmas beers I brought was 10 Lords a Leaping from the Bruery. This beer tasted like the best parts of a Witbier and a stout amalgamated into one beer with lots of spice complexities.

The final week of 2017 brought still more beers. I had a bottle of Chimay Blue, the Belgian Trappist brewery’s Strong Dark Ale which is a wonderful World Class ale. As I said in my Tuesday review, one of my team members at work got me a 4-pack of Spellbound’s Porter aged on Palo Santo Wood as well as their fantastic IPA. Spellbound’s IPA had the perfect balance of hops and malt. I continued my trek through Flying Fish’s Exit Series with Exit 7 Pork Roll Porter at Hub City Brewhouse, a local tap house in New Brunswick, NJ. Unlike another pork infused beer from a NJ brewery I had earlier in the week, Flying Fish’s beer was really well balanced with the right amount of spice and flavor from the pork roll. The other beer was a fantastic Belgian Brown ale from Leffe.

Lastly, New Year’s Eve for the last beers of 2017. The last few years, my wife and have been going to our friend’s house and just about everybody brings their own beer, but everybody winds up sharing. In addition to a six-pack of Victory’s Prima Pils, I’d been holding a Chocolate Bock from Samuel Adams for a couple of weeks and figured New Year’s Eve the right time to have it. I’ve had the beer in the past, but not in a very long time, long before joining untappd. It was as good as I remembered it. I also had a Wet Dream from Evil Twin Brewing, a brown ale with coffee and Flower Child IPA, a well balanced brew from Cambridge Brewing Company.

So there you have it. The “new to me” December 2017 beers. If I’m calling out the best, the top would definitely be Spellbound’s Porter aged on Palo Santo Wood, Founders’ Barrel-Aged IPA Doom and Demented Brewing’s Coffee Stout Gluttony. I’m excluding Bourbon County Brand Stout since I’ve had a previous year’s version.

Coming next week, my top 12 new to me beers of 2017.