The dust has finally started to settle on Goose Island’s sale to Anheuser Busch, Incoporated (ABI), a deal worth some $39 million that would bring more than $16 million in cash to the Chicago brewery. Former brewmaster Greg Hall, who is also the son of Goose Island founder John Hall, cast an ugly, yellowish light on the deal last Friday. Hall was out celebrating his birthday at Bangers and Lace, a craft-beer and sausage bar in Chicago, and had a little too much to drink. He ended his night by filling two beer glasses with his own piss right there at the bar and then leaving the glasses for the bartender to clean up. Real classy, Greg.
The story might be unrelated, but it pretty well encapsulates the craft-beer consumers’ responses to the ABI purchase. Many Goose Island fans are outraged and, if you believe the comments on various news stories around the web, threatening to boycott the brewery in alarming numbers. ABI is the the most vile form of evil in the craft brewing world. It is the Death Star, sniping smaller craft breweries from galaxies away. As much as I would like to say that the Goose Island buyout will be different, that somehow it will only result in more people having access to Goose Island beer, I just can’t do it.
For starters, Goose Island is about to undergo fundamental changes as an organization. Greg Hall is stepping down as brewmaster, which is already a shift in the way the beer will be produced. Add to this the simple fact that ABI will have different financial strictures in place and the beer is bound to change. I know that brewing beer is a business, and Goose Island and the Hall family have every right to sell to whoever they want, but the brand is selling off its craft beer identity, and that’s a shame.
Greg Koch, founder of Stone brewery said in an interview about expanding his own offering, “It's not a market survey driven decision. It's not seeing a niche out there that we thought we could fill. It's simply that we continue to brew beers that excite our own imaginations.” This is what makes craft beer so unique. Craft brewers aren’t looking to sell a product; craft brewers make a compelling product and trust that it will sell. For the best breweries, that model works just fine. Stone is an incredibly successful brewery, but that’s not because of a palatable product. If you’ve ever had a Stone beer, you know it’s not for everyone. Still, the beer geek community has embraced Stone and helped the brand grow from regional to nearly national distribution.
Dogfish Head, one of the most popular and inventive American craft breweries, has seen similar success, but not without tough business decisions. In mid-March the company announced that it would be pulling distribution from Tennessee, Indiana, Wisconsin and Rhode Island as well as Canada and the U.K. Why? Because they didn’t want to “drastically [change] our company and the way we operate,” in order to satisfy demand. Imagine that, a company unwilling to compromise its values and methods just to make more money.
The claim that “it’s a business!” is probably what bothers me most about the support for the Goose Island buyout. We’ve somehow gotten it in our heads that business trumps everything else. That a dollar is better than a product we can stand behind. That 50-state distribution for a mediocre beer is better than 20-state distribution for an excellent beer. It leaves a foul taste in my mouth, one I’m unlikely to forget the next time the only beer at hand is Goose Island and, try as I might, I won’t be able to push the thought of Greg Hall - leaned up against a bar filling my glass with piss - out of my mind.