I can’t lie. The news that Goose Island is selling to Anheuser-Busch InBev for $38.8 million left me feeling as if we Chicagoans had lost a little piece of our own.
I believe my initial reaction was along the lines of “Great. Nice going, you sellouts.” And while I could never pretend to be immune if a giant corporation was to throw millions of dollars in my own face, accepting $38 million felt extremely low for a flagship of craft brewing in Chicago.
The problem with mergers and acquisitions like this is that they make all the financial sense in the world on paper but there is also part of the equation that always gets lost – what the end user feels.
With that in mind, here’s a sampling of the sentiment that was produced at the news of Goose Island’s sale:
“This is a very sad day in Chicago! Goose Island was a great supporter of the community and produced a well liked LOCAL Chicago product!”
“I won’t buy and sample another Goose Island product or step into their bar or brewery. They are sellouts to a billion pound gorilla!”
“Boycott Goose Island!”
“Boost production” means cheaper made beer. I won’t be drinking your version of Bud.”
Some of these might be beer purists, but many of them also express a deep love to retain all that is homegrown.
My problem isn’t just because the brewer is being sold but also because part of its heritage is inevitably going to change from here. And in a way that might not be for the better.
With Anheuser-Busch’s mammoth distribution channels, there’s every reason to expect that Goose Island will become less Chicago’s and more everybody else’s. I think there’s something to be said for a brand that plays hard to get. You shouldn’t be able to get great beer everywhere. You should have to work for it. And that’s not just the purist in me talking. It’s the person who believes that great brands in this day and age need to remember their core audience. Their heart and soul. Their home base.
Years from now, I don’t want Goose Island to be like Sam Adams, trying to prove how small it is even though I can get it on any supermarket shelf or in any bar. Sam Adams is good beer, but now that it’s available at every turn, do I think of it as Boston’s beer? Not really.
In a statement, Dave Peacock, the President of AB, said all the right things about preserving the hometown pride associated with Goose. But he also spoke about expansion of the AB portfolio and accelerated growth.
Portfolios and accelerated growth don’t feel very craft brew-ish to me.
Oh, it’s not like I can’t completely understand where this deal is coming from. It has a common predicament of craft brewers all over it.
The challenge for craft brewers is not merely in maintaining great quality of the product and innovating on a consistent basis but also successful distribution. If all brewers had to do was beat Bud, Miller and Coors on taste, it wouldn’t be as challenging for the little guy to do. At all. But when someone from the Big 3 can come into a grocery store and have the first say on where their product is going to be located on the shelf, craft brewers have a goliath to contend with, even if it’s not considered true head-to-head competition in terms of taste or price.
In other words, a grocery store manager booting a flagship A-B brand to the non-cold area of the beer section in favor of a newly launched craft beer might as well start looking for a new job.
Still, I hope the Busch clan will remember three important things beyond profit and distribution to try to achieve brand preservation:
1. Keep the people at Goose Island heavily involved in the manufacturing of the product and direction of the brand on a local level.
Chicago is what built Goose Island, no matter how big it gets. It’s built into the very fabric of the brand. So if the beer can be found far outside the vicinity of Chicago, show us that people like John Hall, Goose Island’s founder, will remain as CEO for the long haul and be able to keep surrounding himself with people who have been responsible for Goose Island’s success up to this point. With all due respect to macrobrewers, you would hope that AB does the sensible thing and lets the craft beer people stay near the craft beer.
To this same end, keep Goose Island more visibly connected to community events in Chicago than in any other market. This is part of the tradition that built the brand as well.
The Brewmaster at Goose is changing too. Greg Hall, the founder’s son, resigned from this role, but I’ll reserve judgment on that for now because it’s not exactly a hack we’re talking about to replace him. The new Brewmaster who takes over on May 1, Brett Porter, is from Deschutes Brewery in Oregon. Deschutes is a quality brewer that knows plenty about how to craft a good pint. So that’s encouraging.
2. Keep the innovation of strong Goose Island varieties coming.
At the end of the day, a brand can only be as strong as the product or service it sells, which includes the talent within. So let’s hope that Mr. Porter knows how to maintain the tradition of new and exciting beers produced by Goose Island, with pleasant surprises to satisfy purists and the everyday drinker alike.
3. Remember that these are beers with a fan base, not mere line items on a budget.
What’s going to happen with a beloved brand within the brand if it isn’t meeting its quarterly numbers? Are we going to see less 312 Wheat suddenly as a result, no matter how award-winning it is? Nobody around here wants to be talking about the good old days when we could get that wonderful Bourbon County that Goose Island used to brew.
If there’s a silver lining in what is otherwise tough news to swallow, it’s not like Goose brews the only great beer around these parts. In fact, there are a variety of local brewers in the area who, if you haven’t tried them, you definitely should. Not to mention the nearby brewers close to us in the Midwest who brew something that resembles more magical nectar than mere beer: Three Floyds, Bell’s Brewery, Summit Brewing, just to name a few.
Craft beer in Chicago is on the rise and perhaps we have Goose Island’s legacy of the last 20+ years to thank for it. So support and embrace your local craft brewer now, because you never know when big changes may alter them one way or another.
Here’s a few to hit on your list:
Piece Brewery & Pizzeria
1927 W. North Avenue
2323 N. Milwaukee Avenue
5121 N. Ravenswood Avenue
Two Brothers Brewing
30 W. 315 Calumet Ave. (Warrenville)