Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out, by Josh Noel

Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business

This is more than just the history of Goose Island Beer Company; this is the history of how Anheuser-Busch went from ignoring craft beer to trying to kill craft beer to (somewhat) embracing craft beer.

Goose Island was founded in 1988 and fairly quickly established themselves as a solid brewer in Chicago. In 1992 they basically invented the bourbon barrel-aged movement with their Bourbon County Stout and placed themselves among the leaders of the growing craft beer movement. Around this same time the explosive growth in craft beer started cutting into the profits of Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors so they did what any near-monopoly does: they tried to kill their competitors. This cold war between large and small brewers continues through today, but in 2011 a major shift happened: AB InBev bought Goose Island outright. This was seen as traitorous by the craft industry and the Brewers Association which governs craft reacted by officially defining craft beer as "small, independent, and traditional" which meant that Goose Island went from a leader in the industry to an outsider overnight.

Noel does a good job of telling the story and showing the logic behind the decisions of the major players. He is fairly even-handed (if anything, he may have underplayed the outrage and sense of betrayal that occurred when the purchase occurred) and accurately noted that the craft beer community breaks down into two camps: people that care about how the beer tastes and people that care about who profits from the sales. (Personally I feel more of a kinship with the first group, but certainly understand the animosity towards "big beer" and their bully pulpit.) This is a fascinating and entertaining narrative, and Noel describes it well. His conclusion is spot-on, capturing the bittersweet result of the war. "Craft beer won: it forced the biggest beer company in the world to change. Craft beer lost: it had been commandeered by the biggest beer company in the world."

First Sentence:
On a Thursday evening in 1986, as a spring storm pounded the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, John Hall sat in an airplane on the rain-glazed tarmac and did something he would recount for the rest of his life.

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