It’s the end of an era: Honker’s Ale, one of the original Goose Island flagship beers dating back to the late 1980’s, will no longer be seen on store shelves or non-Goose-outlet tap handles around Chicago or beyond.
According to reports from distributors and retailers, we’ve learned the beer is no longer available via any regular distribution channels at all. Production at the Anheuser-Busch plants in New York and Colorado (where much of Goose’s production moved after the 2011 sale) ended in 2016, but was shifted back to Chicago. Now we understand it’s not being brewed at the Fulton Avenue facility either.
These distributor tips were confirmed via a statement from Goose Island president Todd Ahsmann via their PR agency, which clarified that the beer is not being completely discontinued — Honker’s will continue, “and you can find it at our brewpubs.”
Josh Noel’s book “Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out”* has lots of details as to the origins of Honker’s Ale and what it meant to a young Goose Island three decades ago. Honker’s Ale was “a brown-hued English bitter named by Pat Hall [wife of brewery founder John Hall]. ‘If the brewery is called Goose Island, there needs to be a Honker’s Ale,’ she told John.”
Originally described on the Goose Clybourn menu as “a fine pale ale that any Englishman would be proud of: traditional yeast, malt and hops make this ale a classic on both sides of the Atlantic,” Honker’s was the brewery’s flagship beer in a time when American craft beer was mostly limited to Sam Adams Boston Lager, Pete’s Wicked Ale and Anchor Steam. Along with Old Clybourn Porter, it was one of the original two beers brewed onsite at the Clybourn brewpub before its opening in May 1988.
Until the introduction of 312 Urban Wheat, it was the brewery’s biggest selling beer for a decade. Changing tastes lead to a big drop in Honker’s popularity throughout Goose’s lifespan — per Noel writing about the release of Green Line Pale Ale in 2010, “Within months, Green Line had nearly one thousand Chicago accounts; Honker’s had fewer than fifty.”
As recently as 2014, sales of Honker’s Ale were nearly $3.5M, though declining quickly that year. “Honker’s was a dead style, and sales prove it,” wrote Noel of that year’s response to the beer nationwide.
There are other clues that indicate Honker’s was more or less done for — it’s no longer listed as part of the brewery’s official lineup on their website. As recent as mid-November 2018, Honker’s was still listed as a year round beer (image below accessed via the Internet Wayback Machine):
Today, a review of Year Round, Seasonal, Barrel House and Limited Release beers shows no evidence of Honker’s, nor is it listed in their Archived section. It’s just … gone.
We also haven’t seen any evidence of a new Honker’s Ale label come through the TTB as part of Goose Island’s ongoing rebrand for 2019. New IPA, Old Man Grumpy, Green Line and Next Coast IPA labels have all come through, among others — but nothing for Honkers.
We even checked to see if Goose Island’s new London-area brewpub in Shoreditch was carrying the English-style ale. No dice, per their draft list — though they are pouring Golden Goose, another beer with a heritage that reaches back to 1988.
This change might not mean much to most of us — how long has it been since the last time you’ve seen, let alone actually had, a Honker’s Ale? I’m guessing it’s been quite a while. Sentiment aside, it’s another indication that Goose Island is moving beyond its origins as a Chicago brewery and more fully into an international brand of American craft beer for AB InBev.
If you really want it, and they happen to have it at a brewpub, you can still taste this piece of Chicago brewing history. Beyond that? The time for Honker’s has almost entirely passed.
Incidentally, this isn’t the first time GDB has sussed out the quiet ending of Goose Island beers and branding — we originally reported on the death of their 312 Urban Pale Ale, and also the removal of the 1992 origin date on Bourbon County.
*Affiliate link. If you purchase something, GDB may receive a small share of the sale.