Sparging the News: Our Take on the Goose Island Buyout By Anheuser-Busch InBev

In Beer News by Karl

Could this be 312's new logo? (+322 is the international calling code for Belgium, home of AB parent InBev.) Image used with permission from Jeff Cagle.*

KARL: The news of Goose Island being bought out by Anheuser-Busch seems to have taken a similar emotional path throughout many in the brewer-verse this morning.  Just before 9am, John Hall announced that Goose Island was to be sold to A-B for 38.8 million dollars.  At that precise moment, a wave of moderate shock resounded through the Twitterati, almost immediately downgraded to “mild” and followed up quickly with resignation.  Put into one word?  Bummer.  When AB bought a stake in Goose back in 2007 2006 (what’s a year between friends?) I’m pretty sure we all expected this day to happen.  Now it’s here, and we have to deal with it.

Assuming that we’re mostly in the “acceptance phase” of Buyout Day, we’re watching opinions flying about regarding what the purchase means for the future of Goose Island as a whole, what it means for Chicagoans specifically, and about what the AB-InBev influence will have on GI.  One point: While most of the stories have been talking about AB’s role in this whole deal, remember that they’re run by Belgian superbrewerconglomeratemonster InBev.  If your dollars were staying in Chicago previously, don’t get fooled into thinking they’re just going to St. Louis now – at the end of the day, those bucks are headed to Brussels.

Here’s a quick list of questions off the top of our head that we’d love to have an answer to.  Afterwards, a bit of our perspective.

1)  First and foremost, what will really happen with the way existing beers are made?  With main brewer Greg Hall out, how long until we start seeing things like corn and rice make its way into Honkers and 312 as cost savers?  How long until corners start being cut?  Leffe Blonde is owned by AB.  Leffe Blonde is now made with corn.  Were monks making it like that in the 1100s?  Our guess is “no.”

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2)  Will Goose Island suffer from AB “guilt by assocation?”  Now that AB has purchased a major craft beer brand, does that do more to influence perception of AB by the 95% of the market that isn’t a craft beer fan?  Or does it do more to impugn the reputation of GI by the people that have always known and appreciated their craft?

3)  The brewpubs apparently will remain independent – but with that independence comes uncertainty.  Will they be able to remain economically viable without the GI retail sales arm of the company?  Can the Clybourn location continue to be able to make the pub-only offerings that kept people coming back or will concessions need to be made?

4)  How long does John Hall stay as president and CEO?  Now that they’ve been bought out, how long will it take for someone to crunch the numbers and decide that that layer of management is unnecessary?

5)  It’s good that AB will be throwing money into expansion and keeping brewing operations local.  But, again, how long do we expect that will continue before someone decides that consolidations is a better expense, and all of a sudden 312 is being brewed in the 314?

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While we don’t want to appear Chicken Little-esque, these are honest concerns for what we fear might end up happening – and we doubt we’re alone.

Here’s a prediction:  Goose Island will essentially become the next national Sam Adams (excusing for the moment that Sam Adams remains an independent brewer itself).  A few fairly generic main brands that you can get pretty much anywhere.  (Honkers and Summertime will probably grow exponentially.  Look for 312 to move to become Blue Moon Part Deux, if not rebranded completely.)  A few occasional seasonals that aren’t too crazy (or too great).  A market position of being technically “craft beer” but lacking the care and individuality that is the hallmark of a good craft brew.  And everyone will make a lot of money.

The good news is that if you’re really turned off by GI’s newer, bigger connection to the Patron Saints of Beer Genericism, Chicago hasn’t had this many other craft beer options since Prohibition.  (And while we’re on the subject, have you considered Save The Craft today?)  Metropolitan, Half Acre, Revolution Brewing, Haymarket and more would be happy to have more of your business.  If you want to keep your money and your drinking habits local, honestly, it’s really never been easier.

For example:

Like Honkers?  Try a Half Acre Gossamer.

Like 312?  Try a Flossmoor Stationmaster Wheat.

Enjoy a Green Line IPA?  Give Daisy Cutter a try.  Fan of Summertime?  Check out Metro’s Krankshaft Kolsch.  Have a Two Brothers Atom Smasher for the Harvest Ale.  Gonna miss the Mild Winter?  Give Over Ale a shot.  We could do this all day.

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At the end of all this, will the deal be a bad thing for Chicago’s craft brew scene?  It’s not great, but it’s not completely unexpected.  (And if we’re really being honest, I had mentally put Goose Island in the macrobrew category years ago.) But it could work out great for the little guys still doing it the way it was meant to be done.

I recently swung by Metropolitan Brewing for the first time.  It’s whole operation is 3 main players running the day-to-day stuff, supplemented by a few volunteers.  I watched them labeling every bottle by hand, filling each bottle in small batches, and packing it up the old fashioned way – carrying each case to the pallet by hand.  I know I’ll remain in the minority for a while to come, but it’s the little guys like them who I’ll continue to get behind.  Yeah, I’ll probably still have a 312 every now and again, but I’m looking forward to seeing who steps up and takes their place – and whoever it is, they’ll have far more of my support.

*Jeff’s site is located here, btw.  Captions are anti-linking for some reason.

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About the Author



Karl has written about food, travel and beer for Chicago Magazine, Thrillist, Time Out Chicago, AskMen and more. His book, Beer Lovers Chicago, is now available via Amazon and other booksellers. If you're buying, he's likely having a porter or a pale ale.

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