Tim Faith discussing his beer - photos by Pat Evans

More than seven years ago, the beer world was shaken by the Anheuser-Busch deal to purchase Chicago’s Goose Island. 

The impact of Anheuser-Busch, now part of AB InBev, has certainly divided parts of the beer industry as the company has gone on to purchase more craft breweries and seemingly dominates the separate, but all too included beer distribution industry.

I often see the divisiveness as a national beverage writer—even among writers—between people who happily still drink those beers or are oblivious to ownership and those who protest the global conglomerate’s ownership. I couldn’t tell you the last time I bought a Goose product, but I’ll happily drink it when I come across it, even before I was invited on a press trip to Chicago in September.

 

Goose Island head brewer Jared Jankoski pulling fresh Bourbon County Brand Stout from a barrel

The trip was meant to showcase this year’s Bourbon County Stout variants, but also the commitment and investment within the Chicago Goose Island brewery. It’s a little jarring to me that so many people outside of employees of the craft beer industry are concerned with the deal, but I do understand those employees’ issues. Having once worked at a brewery, I understand the desire for many owners to accept a deal—Goose Island sold for $38.8 million and a few years later, Ballast Point sold for $1 billion to Constellation Brands. At the time of the deal, it was understandable that Goose Island founder John Hall was nearing retirement age and wanted to recoup his investment.

The ensuing investment in Goose Island, and the other brands it’s since purchased, has been a boon to the brewery and its employees and likely the entire industry. 

Walking through the brewery, it looks like many of the other large craft breweries across the U.S., an expected picture given Goose Island’s influential status as it’s now in its 30th year of operation.  But with production of its major brands, like 312 Wheat Ale and IPA farmed out to AB’s massive breweries, the brewers in Chicago are given a long leash in terms of innovation. Those beers often start as taproom-only releases and Chicago-only releases, eventually graduating into
full distribution, but still brewed at the Chicago brewery. 

We also walked toured Intelligentsia Coffee, the brewery’s coffee provider, and the barrelhouse with thousands of barrels of beer aging. While in the barrelhouse, we tried this year’s Bourbon County variants: Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine, Bourbon County Brand Stout, Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout, Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine, Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout, Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout and Bourbon County Brand Bramble Rye Stout.

While in Chicago, I chatted with an innovation brewer, Tim Faith, whom I knew from my days at the Grand Rapids Business Journal and his at New Holland Brewing Co. His wheatwine will be among the variants of Bourbon County releases this year.

He spoke to me about the great opportunities the brewery has now because of AB’s investment, including research, quality tools and educational experiences. A quality assurance employee at another major Midwest brewery I recently had drinks with, said the research and advancements made at the major brewery-owned production facilities benefit the entire industry, backed up Faith’s statements.

Then when you start to look at the beer scene in Chicago (and Midwest) and notice how many of the founders and brewers came from Goose Island, it’s startling. 

I’ve always been on the side of drink what your palate likes and I still am. If one of the AB breweries (Goose Island, 10 Barrel, Golden Road, Blue Point, Elysian, Wicked Weed, Karbach, Devil’s Backbone, Four Peaks, Breckenridge, or even the CBA breweries like Kona) tastes good, drink them! I’m also of the belief it’s important to try, and support, local beers wherever travels take you and in
your neighborhood.

Yes, some of AB InBev’s tactics can be a bit predatory. Does that stop consumers from buying products from other major corporations? No. Does their investment in breweries help the entire industry? Yes and I have no doubt, while AB wants to make the most money it can, that it also cares about beer as a whole.

The trip to Chicago could have altered my view, especially if they were trying to hide behind a veil, but the entire time they talked freely of their experiences with AB. I respect those who disagree with AB InBev, but I also don’t feel like beer (or politics) should be like sports fandom, it’s not cut or dry.

No matter how you feel this year’s batch of Bourbon County Stout variants are definitely worth a try, no matter how you feel about the brewery’s ownership.