Critical Drinking

John Hall of Goose Island Beer Company — After 25 Years

This week marks the 25th anniversary of Goose Island in Chicago. It's been a dramatic few years for the company, growing rapidly as Chicago's lead craft brewery during the surge, first partnering and eventually selling the operation to Anheuser-Bush, and finally giving birth to a number of fresh Chicago breweries by way of a continuously ambitious talent pool.

For Chicagoans, there's still a healthy amount of wait-and-see among the faithful, while others have left the brand altogether due to its ties to Anheuser-Bush. But one thing is certain: John Hall, the original founder and still-owner of the two brewpubs in Chicago, has nothing but pride, hope, and a bit of disbelief in what the company has become in its 25 years running. And yesterday morning, he sat down for a casual chat about what he's been up to, and where he thinks things are heading. 

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GBH: Congratulations on 25 years of amazing growth with Goose Island. It means a lot to me as both a craft beer professional, and as a Chicagoan to see a brand like Goose Island turn 25 years old this week. 

JH: Thank you. It's important to me on both accounts as well. 

GBH: As much culture as Chicago can call its own, I don't think we've seen a lot of major cultural exports like this, that hit the rest of the country like Goose Island has. 

JH: I can't tell you how much pride that gives me, like everyone else in Chicago, to have this city look so well to the rest of the country. 

GBH: What's it like for you to see new Goose Island drinkers coming online all over the country for the first time?

JH: It's hard to describe. It's surreal. I get emails weekly from friends just to tell me "Oh! We can get Goose in Florida, in Washington, and Oregon!" and places like that. They love it. And I take pride in Chicago and Goose Island that way. I got a picture of a Goose Island display in Arizona just the other day. 

GBH: Have you been traveling some yourself?

JH: A bit, yes. I was just in London, and we've been over there for some time now. And that's such a thrill because the original impetus for Goose came from London as much as any place. Fullers — I love their beers, and that was my model for having a brewery in a big city like that. 

GBH: I've traded beers with people around the world, most recently with friends in Sweden who were very eager to get their hands on Goose Island. But this year I got notes saying "send something else, we can get Goose here now!" I think you sent 20,000 bottles of BCS to Sweden's System Bologet this year. You're killing my trade value!

JH: That's right! 

GBH: So when you look at the way Goose is brewing now, expanding rapidly with the core of the portfolio, and starting the Fulton and Wood series for innovation back home, how do you think about the approach now? What excites you?

JH: Well, back in 1988, we were innovative. We weren't making lagers or light lagers. They were ales and various German styles. There wasn't a lot of that. And if you think about where we are today, we're continuing that and it's just grown by leaps and bounds. Much more innovation, in completely new areas, and different ingredients, different barrels that add more value to the product as well, making it even more interesting. So we're just continuing that. It's just going and going. If you think of the impact on the craft beer movement, and where it's come, it's just hard to believe. Not just on beer, but also a bit on culture and it's traveled to other countries. 

GBH: You mentioned that you wanted a big brewery in the city. How do you think Goose has impacted the economic situation of a place like Chicago? 

JH: We've added jobs of course. But if you think about all the craft brewers here in Chicago, and the impact that has on everything happening right now. It just solidifies Chicago as a destination. We're leaders in many things: theater, music, art, architecture, business, and we're a leader in craft brewing. So I think it helps solidify Chicago's world-class status. 

GBH: What's your role with the brewery now? I know you joined a board with Anheuser-Bush...

JH: I'm on a craft advisory board with Anheuser-Bush. I stay in touch with the current management of Goose, Andy Goeler, Marke Hegedus, Director of Marketing, Bob Kenney the Sales VP and Mark Kamarauskas. So I see them at least once a month, or twice a month and we talk about things. We look at where the company's going and I try to put my two cents in a little bit. But I'm not involved in the day to day. 

GBH: What's the mission of the board and the responsibilities for someone like you?

JH: We meet quarterly, and talk about the direction of Goose Island and the beer community. What's happening with Anheuser-Bush. 

GBH: I know Anheuser-Bush has a section of their portfolio called "High-End." Where does craft fit in? Is it part of that portfolio?

JH: There's not really a section called "craft." It's all "High End" and for craft, Goose Island is the lone member of that. 

GBH: Is there anyone else in the industry you're paying particular attention to right now? Anyone impressing you?

JH: Several! First of all, how can you not be terribly impressed by Sierra Nevada. They've been the leader for 25+ years. And how they've continued to make very impressive, great beers. And expand their portfolio. And now with the new brewery coming up in North Carolina. That's very, very impressive. And the others that have come up, not just across the country, but here in the Midwest. 

The class of '88 is really quite interesting. I think there's 8 or 9 of us, and all but Brooklyn started as a brewpub. And most have become big, strong, regional players. Many have had the same kind of path to get going, starting with the product, and having a culture that's specific to the company. 

GBH: Goose is obviously much larger than it ever was before and part of a larger company at this point. How does Goose look at the culture that it has now? 

JH: I think everybody is committed to maintaining the culture we started here. As an independent company that believes basically in creating great beers that win the hearts, minds and palates of beer drinkers. And that's what it is. It's very focused. That's the one thing that people who come in here repeat over and over — the passion, the great beer, and the belief that we can make better beers. That's what comes across, and it's continuing very strongly. And every message I get from St. Louis is that that's what they want to continue. 

GBH: Let's talk about some of the challenges of running a brewery these days. Both big and small, there seems to be an increasing challenge of maintaining a consistent talent base. Certainly Goose has had quite a few leave over the past couple years since the sale, but I don't think it's just about that. Everyone seems to be struggling to hang on to their best right now when the barrier to entry for starting your own brewery is perceived to be so low. Everyone seems to have the bug. So I'm curious, what do you do about something like that? How does Goose deal with that?

JH: That's a huge issue because you're only as good as your people, and obviously our brewers are responsible for the beer. We've lost some great people over the years. First couple times, it really bothered me. But then I kind of realized that it's no different than what I went through myself. And I saw my son go off and do the same thing. That's a high goal for an awful lot of people, to have their own identity and do something. So there's going to be some of it, and you have to have a deep bench and have people that are well trained. For smaller breweries that's a critical issue because you can't afford a real deep bench. 

GBH: You went through that yourself?

JH: I spent 20 years at a big company and I had a good, wonderful career. And I just made a decision that it was time for me to go off and do my own thing. And my father, and my compatriots all thought I was crazy. Luckily I had a wife that didn't and she supported me through the whole thing. And I can tell you, it's been the greatest thing ever. I look back and think: making beer. it's a fun thing to do, and you get great satisfaction from it. And doing it in Chicago, Illinois at this time in history is probably about the best thing possible. 

GBH: Did your wife have a role early on?

JH: Well, Patricia named Honkers Ale so I give her an awful lot of credit for that. She's been indirectly involved all along. 

GBH: You kept the brewpubs. Why?

JH: It was just natural. Anheuser-Bush hasn't done brewpubs, so they weren't comfortable taking them on right now. And I think it underscores the partnership we have. And how important brewpubs are. They wanted them to continue as much. They play an important role in the marketing. We do innovation and work together. The Jubilee 25th Anniversary Ale was a collaboration between our brewpub brewer, Nick Barren, Brett Porter, and my son Greg who was the original brewer. 

GBH: What's it like to see Greg off doing his own thing?

JH: I couldn't be prouder. It's great to see him. He has the great experience of Goose Island and starting a company, so he's going to be very successful. And I think he's as good as it gets at creating drinkable products. 

GBH: What are some of the goals you have for the next phase of your career?

JH: Well, I've been involved with Eerie Neighborhood House since I started Goose Island. Our first opening day party for the brewpub back in '88 was a fundraiser for Eerie Neighborhood House and we raised $25,000. Since then I've been on their board and we started a charter school and a few other things. It's terribly rewarding.

I'm involved with a start-up called Farm Tier, which is vertical farming. And my family, grandkids, and traveling a little bit. And obviously Goose Island. I'm very committed to making sure everything works as well as it can going forward. 

GBH: In the past two years, craft beer has continued to explode with double digit growth across the board. Looking at the timing of the sale, did you sell too soon?

JH: No, no. People ask me if I regret anything. Not in the least bit. It was the right time. Business circumstances dictated that we either keep growing or we wouldn't have been nearly as important to our wholesale partners and retail partners if we couldn't continue to supply them beer. So we had to do something. We looked at different alternatives and partnering up and selling to Anheuser-Bush couldn't have worked out any better for the company, for beer drinkers and for me personally. So I'm very pleased about that. 

GBH: Favorite Goose Island beer?

JH: I usually tell people it's the beer in my hand. And more often than not there is a beer in my hand. I'm a little partial to Honkers Ale because it was one of our original beers that survived and it's a great, flavorful beer without a lot of alcohol, which I think is important. And then I like Sofie and awful lot. Sofie is my granddaughter's name. 

GBH: This sort of comes full circle, but you mentioned that back in '88 you weren't making lagers. But I see a lot of craft breweries making lagers again, and the first Fulton and Wood series beer from Goose after the sale was a Helles. 

JH: It's a great style! Back when we started, lagers could be a little boring. And something that's driving things right now is that people want something different all the time. They never want the same thing. With lagers, it's really hard to separate yourself much. They're all fairly similar. With ales, you can go all over the place. With Belgian style even more so. And now with barrel aged, even more so than that. But to come back — that's the beauty of beer. I love a great lager. 

Words + Photos by
Michael Kiser