Critical Drinking

Goodbye to Goose Island's Clybourn Pub for a Season, and Forever.

We talk a lot about how important it is for a craft brewery to have a home. A place from which all good things flow. A place that drinkers can reach if they swim upstream from where a bottle hits the shelf to where that bottle first gets filled. The taproom, the pub, the production space built on concrete and steel — the drinker wants it, we know.

But rarely do we talk about the importance of place to the people who work there. How it affects the psychology of the team that produces the beer we love. How it holds them together over time as people inevitably cycle in and out in their careers. As they come and go, the place is the common experience they’ll all share. 

“This was the best 29 years of my life,” John Hall told me last night as he took another hearty swig of Bourbon County Stout. 

For generations of Goose Island employees, the Clybourn brewpub was that place that tied the company together. Even after the sale to AB, from which the pub was initially excluded, the Clybourn space served as the spiritual center. There was even an internal project explicitly designed to keep the two teams working together and collaborating as though they were one and the same.  My sense at the time — I was working with the team on Grit & Grain, an attempt to detail the story of Bourbon County Stout once and for all — was that the Fulton St production company (owned outright by AB) didn’t want to lose touch with the place that defined who they were. Clybourn was the Goose of record that way. It carried weight. It served as the family photo album brought to life. And if you wanted to work at Goose Island, what better initiation than a pint at Clybourn?

“I drank my first Honkers here,” said Jesse Valenciana, Goose’s National Activation Manager. It wasn’t long after having one of his first craft beers in the Clybourn pub that Jesse went on to get a job at the brewery. “I couldn’t wait to tell my roommate that the brewery who made that Honkers Ale was the place where I just got a job.” 

I have my own memories of Clybourn. It was the First Thursdays held in the Siebel Institute room where I met Chicago’s homebrewing community and took part in my first bottle share. There were many more of those to follow. That same room hosted the Stout Fest back in 2011 where I had my first beers from Revolution and Pipeworks. Me and friend rented the north dining room for a Festivus celebration in 2012. Then there was the 26th anniversary party with John Hall passing out Rares. And I once sat at the iconic English-style bar reading Randy Mosher’s “Tasting Beer” when he walked in, sat across from me and ordered a beer. That was the first time I realized Randy lives in Chicago. He was a regular. 

Last night felt like a funeral — maybe the celebratory kind, maybe not. Depended on the moment. The old bar is going away, the space is getting opened up, and the light is being let in. That’ll serve the future drinker well. Goose’s hospitality concepts around the world are making a statement about who and what Goose Island is for a new generation. And that’s decidedly more spirited and perhaps less spiritual. Goose’s President, Ken Stout, who’s leading the project after the impressive Fulton St. Taproom was finished, aptly described his goal as: “I want electric.”

But there is value to having places where the light isn’t so fresh and clean. Where the buzz is as low as the voices in the room, and not from the wattage above. Where the most precious things aren’t in a museum, knowing they only have so many reads left in them before their spines give way and the pages start to shuffle, but out in the open with asses in well-worn seats and pints sliding across the bar. 

I couldn’t do it myself, and I don’t envy the job of making the choice. And I suspect John Hall couldn’t either. 

“This was the best 29 years of my life,” John Hall told me last night. “And now it’s theirs and they can do whatever they’re gonna do with it. Nothing lasts forever.”

Words + Photos by
Michael Kiser