Book Review: Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch,
and How Craft Beer Became Big Business
The subject of the book cuts at the core of what many consider to be the number one issue that upsets craft beer fans: how big beer companies try to control the market to their advantage. Goose Island is a Chicago-based brewery that was bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev to add to their craft beer portfolio. In a nutshell, InBev is a Brazilian-owned, Belgium-based multinational company that owns hundreds upon hundreds of brands, growing especially large when it merged with SABMiller, another huge multinational company, in 2016.
The acquisitions these huge companies have made have included breweries from all over the world and all regions of our country, Texas included. Most Houstonians are aware that Karbach Brewing Company was acquired by AB InBev in 2016. However, you may not be aware that during the same year Dallas suburb, Granbury’s, Revolver Brewing Company was acquired by MillerCoors (itself a joint creation of SABMiller and Molson Coors, a story of another merger for another place and time), and Lagunitas Brewing, owned by Heineken, bought part of Austin’s Independence Brewing.
In the last few months, we have had two other conglomerates purchase Texas breweries. The first, Canarchy, a subsidiary of a venture capital firm called Fireman Capital Partners that owns Oskar Blues and Cigar City, amongst others, recently acquired Dallas’ Deep Ellum Brewing company. Shortly thereafter it was announced that Constellation Brands, a conglomerate that owns many beer, spirit, and wine brands (most notable amongst their beer brands would be Corona/Modelo products and Ballast Point), purchased Dallas’ Four Corners Brewing. Even old school player Spoetzl Brewing, brewer of Shiner, which is owned by a Texas-based company, The Gambrinus Company, have participated in the acquisition game by purchasing Bridgeport Brewing and Trumer Brewery to add to their portfolio. You can see how this can get confusing very quickly with so many mergers and no clear labeling to allow the consumer to know the parent company of these breweries. Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out tells the story of how we got to this point.
These acquisitions usually create negative reactions amongst a vocal contingent of the brewery’s fans who feel their locally owned brewery has “sold out”. I have been in many a bar conversation in which the topic of discussion is either anger or lamentation of Karbach being acquired. I also will sometimes hear someone voice support to Karbach. I have seen people deride a friend for ordering a Karbach and then later order a Goose Island, seeing a difference between a far-away brewery selling out and the one in their own backyard. I know some people who couldn’t care less about the issue. I think if you fall into any one of these categories, this book will provide you something to think about and enjoy.
There’s a lot to address in not only the history of the subject matter at hand, but also the passion and interests of the various stakeholders of the brewing industry as a whole, which Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out does through the lens of Goose Island’s story. The prologue actually asserts that the story of Goose Island is the story of craft beer. While that may be debatable, this book does a great job of showing how the market trends and goals of big business intersected with Goose Island’s story and goes further into how the market also created Canarchy, Constellation Brands, and the other groups out there who sought to add breweries to their portfolio to expand their business reach. The history of Goose Island, from their founding to their recent moves, is covered in about as much detail as anyone could want. Another item I enjoy about this book is that it’s current through late 2017, making it feel most relevant, and leaving us to see how the story of craft beer continues to unfold. The writer, Josh Noel, also provides updates on Goose Island’s ongoing story through periodic articles for The Chicago Tribune, showing his dedication to the subject matter.
Without spoiling too much, I learned new things about Goose Island’s founder and their goals that made me rethink my image of Goose Island starting off as the small craft “start-up” that comes to mind when we think of microbreweries starting in the late 1980’s. They entered the business with more savvy and business acumen than we envision when thinking of a start-up craft brewery. There were also plusses, not just financial bonuses, to being owned by InBev that benefited their employees that I had not previously considered. That being said, the book provides plenty of information on the things the employees chaffed over as their company’s culture began it’s slow change. The writer gained great insight into the variety of views of those inside of Goose Island at the time of the acquisition, and after moving forward as a brewery in the aftermath of being under the InBev umbrella. There’s also perspective from the public and establishments that sell or sold Goose Island and others involved in the beer industry.
Origins and history of popular Goose Island brews are detailed, and the ever pressing question of whether or not the flavor of the beer changed is briefly addressed. To lighten things up, the book is also peppered with insightful and often funny inside stories of things that occurred at the brewery. By the time I was done reading, there was no doubt in my mind that Goose Island was innovative, experimental, and their story is big piece of craft beer history. The amount of changes seen since the brewery opened in 1988, when there were only 199 breweries in the country, through the current market is truly remarkable. Goose Island is an excellent focal point to tell an almost 30 year swath of beer history. There’s also no doubt about the influence the brewery had on the industry, not only through their market presence and popularity of key Goose Island beers, but through the amount of industry professionals that received their starts at Goose Island.
Josh Noel conducted many interviews for Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out, as well as cited a huge list of items researched for the book in the bibliography. The information gathered, especially first hand accounts, do tell more of the inside story of Goose Island than delve into the inner workings of InBev, but this is understandable considering the secretive nature of large companies. It would have been beneficial if the writer was able to get personal insight from InBev CEO Carlos Brito or someone in his inner circle, but there’s enough information obtained from the writer’s research to paint a solid picture of InBev’s business plans and attitude towards the craft beer market and it‘s consumers.
It’s also quite plain to see how InBev’s marketing approach did not understand craft fans at first, but they’re adapting hard to gain stronger footholds in the craft market share. You’ll understand why InBev had to buy into craft because they didn’t understand craft beer well enough to create it themselves, especially the culture surrounding craft beer. There’s also plenty of back story on the history of Anheuser Busch, and the entirety of their history with craft beer, as well as how they have used their market leverages and loopholes in the three tier system to dominate business.
The book also asks an interesting question: Did craft beer win or lose when “Big Beer” bought their way into the craft market? The argument could be that craft beer won because they changed Big Beer. The counter argument is that craft beer lost because it had been commandeered by the biggest brewery in the world. In a recent Chicago Tribune piece, Mr. Noel proclaimed that, due to the brands they purchased, InBev is now very close to being the largest producer of craft beer in the United States. No matter the answer to whether craft beer won or lost, it will continue to be tempting for larger beer companies to acquire craft brands and the story of craft beer is far from over. With the size of our city and growth potential, you can easily envision further attempts from these big companies to buy their way into the Houston market much like we‘ve seen recently in Dallas.
The overall book is very professional, detailed, and, while favoring a craft beer fans’ perspective, doesn’t feel like it’s pushing its agenda too hard. You know what you’re getting into by the title and will not be surprised by the content. I definitely recommend checking this book out if you’re interested in the history or business trends within craft beer.
With the future of craft beer yet to be written, Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out is a book that’s truly relevant to now and a great starting point to ponder on the future of craft beer.