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Chicagoist Grills: Greg Hall, Brewmaster, Goose Island Beer Company

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jun 20, 2006 3:00PM

2006_06_ghall.jpgIt was 2:05 last Thursday afternoon when Chicagoist paid a visit to the Goose Island brewery on West Fulton. We were running a bit behind schedule, which didn’t matter, as we were informed that Greg Hall, Goose Island’s affable brewmaster, who agreed to sit down for an interview, was called into a business meeting. The receptionist took our phone number and promised to call as soon as Hall was free. Assuming that the interview would be rescheduled, we headed down the street, reaching the train station when we were informed that Hall was available. We ran back to the brewery, where we were pleasantly greeted by Hall, who took Chicagoist to the brewery to sample some beer.

Goose Island’s been making some headlines in recent weeks, first with reports that Anheuser Busch was looking to purchase a stake in Goose Island (reports that Hall both personally called this member of Chicagoist to refute and tackled in the comments section of our post on the subject). Not a week later, we received word that Goose Island and Anheuser Busch had reached a distribution deal – a deal made official with a press release last week. Also last week, that minority stake that Anheuser Busch was rumored to have purchased was actually sold to Portland-based Widmer Brothers Brewing Company, a company in which Anheuser Busch holds a small stake.

Having known Hall for a couple years, and also knowing that he's an avid reader of Chicagoist, we thought there might be an opportunity to have him fully explain the new deals to those who claim a deal with a major beer brand is akin to “selling out.” Walking into the brew plant, Hall motioned to the top of the vats and said, “You can see we don’t have any Clydesdales painted on them.” As we wrote before in our post about the sale, it’s a deal that only has upside for a company that Hall’s father, John, turned from a small brewpub on Clybourn into the largest craft brewery in the Midwest, as well as the largest certified organic brewery in the country (Goose Island brews the organic Lamar St. Pale Ale for Whole Foods).

Hall also discussed his passion for beer and what to expect from Goose Island in the coming months. Our full interview with Greg Hall can be read after the jump.

Chicagoist: What are the advantages of the new distribution deal with Anheuser Busch?
Greg Hall: It expands our territory, obviously. With Union, our old distributor, we were only able to reach about a thousand accounts. They did a great job selling our beer and we’ll be eternally grateful to them, but eventually they didn’t have the range of accounts we were seeking. Anheuser Busch calls on nearly nine-thousand accounts in the city alone, and they hand sell to every one. We’ve already sold more beer downstate in two weeks (with Anheuser Busch) than we ever did with Union. I’m not saying that we should look at Champaign as a major market for us, but it shouldn’t be our weakest Big Ten market. Goose Island sells more beer in Kalamazoo than in Champaign. There’s something wrong with that.

C: Alright, so where does the Widmer Brothers deal fit in? Couldn’t some folks construe that as Anheuser Busch making a back-door play to own a piece of Goose Island?
G.H.: The Widmer’s deal is what we were able to use to facilitate the distribution deal with Anheuser. So if there is a back door, it's ours. When we moved the brewery to this location in ’95, we tried to get larger distributors to buy in, and they didn’t want to hear from us. So we raised the money from private investors and moved on. Over the years, as the company grew, we had to find a way to buy new equipment for the plant, add new employees, and pay out to our shareholders their stakes in the company. We’ve known the Widmers for a long time; they started their brewery in ’84, and we started in ’88. So what we’re able to do is swap out the minority shareholders – who don’t have anything to do with running the company – with another company who has been through what we’re just starting to do. It also benefits Widmer in that they’re close to national at this point, but they don’t have a prominent presence in Chicago.

C: And now they’re able to do that with this?
GH: Absolutely.

C: So what would you say to folks who might say that Goose Island is “selling out?”
GH: To me, this story is more about the beer. I don’t think people really care or put much thought into where they get their beer. People don't care that Blue Moon is made by Coors. "Band guy" drinking PBR probably doesn’t know that Pabst is owned by a holding company that’s owned by Miller, which is owned by SAB, and every PBR you drink is making someone in England richer. We aren't moving anywhere, and we're still an independent brewery that's proud to call Chicago home. We now have a better opportunity to place our product in markets that were previously unavailable to us.

C: You started out as an apprentice brewer in your father’s brewpub. What did he see in you that made him think you could be a good brewer?
GH: Cheap labor, to be honest. When I was an apprentice brewer, I was making minimum wage. I worked under the brewmaster and learned to make the beer. Later on, when the brewpub was starting to become successful, my father would go out of town and put me in charge of the brewpub. I was still making minimum wage. So I learned the hard way. There was a lot of learning in the brewpub. He didn't show me any preferential treatment. He wanted to see if I had a passion for the business.

C: And when you finally decided to become a brewmaster?
GH: He said there’d be no favors. He said that if I really wanted to pursue this, I’d have to be as pure as Caesar’s wife, which is something he always says. So I went to Siebel and got some refinement through the brewmaster program. I came back and applied those refinements to what I was already doing. Things like chemistry and microbiology that I hadn't thought about previously.

C: Did you always want to brew beer?
GH: All my friends thought that I’d be a tavern owner. Then I discovered that I could actually make beer, and things sort of changed from there. I guess I knew I'd always be around beer in some way, but I never thought this would be possible.

C: Are there other brewers whose product you admire?
GH: One of the great things about the American craft beer community is that we’re always talking to each other. We’re all friends in the brewing community. When we first opened the brewery I would travel all over and stay with other brewmasters, all to be able to make beer in their plants for a week and get an idea of how they approach brewing. I also like that most of these breweries are family owned. It’s like in England, you’ve got Fuller’s, Young’s, and Sam Smith’s. Those breweries are still all family owned. The Yeungeling brewery in Pennsylvania is the oldest brewery in the country, and it’s stayed in that family for generations. One generation sells it to the next generation. People don’t see the value in that anymore.

C: In being a smaller, family-owned brewery?
GH: There’s a different value to it. As a privately-owned company, you’re not answering to shareholders who only care about profit margin. It's like working at Costco. Folks there might be happy that they're making a living, but there's probably a board member there looking at their P&L and thinking they could make more profit by cutting a few jobs. We’ve got employees here at Goose Island who have been here for years. Our head brewer has been here for seven years. I'd also like to think we've become some sort of feeder for other people interested in becoming brewmasters. Jonathan Cutler at Piece and Nick Floyd at Three Floyds used to work here. It’s like all these great chefs coming out of Trotter’s or Trio, like Grant (Achatz) and (Homaru) Cantu.

C: Do you have a personal favorite Goose Island beer?
GH: That’s like asking if I have a favorite child. I like them all. But if I have to place one above the rest, I would say Matilda. That ale shows that American craft brewers are making Belgian Ales better than Belgian breweries. Here’s a story to back that claim: when we launched in New York, I contacted the manager at d.b.a. – one of my favorite bars in Manhattan - about doing a blind tasting of Goose Island brews to their best-selling beers. We paired our India pale against their best-selling I.P.A., Honker’s Ale against their best bitter, and our Pere Jacques trappist ale against Rochefort. When I suggested the Pere Jacques against the Rochefort, he thought I was out of my mind. So we poured the beers and tasted them blind, and he preferred the Pere Jacques. He started making excuses about the age and filtering processes of the Rochefort, but the fact was we made a better beer.

C: Are there any new beers we should be looking for in the coming months?
GH: Take a look.

(We walk through the plant to a stack of wooden casks.)

GH: I know you like bourbon, so you know what these are. For our Bourbon County stout we usually use three-year-old Jim Beam casks. These are eleven and twelve-year-old casks from Heaven Hill. There’s not as much char residue on the wood, and the wood itself has matured.

C: So this year’s Bourbon County Stout is going to be smoother out of the bottle.
GH: Exactly. We also took some of last year’s Christmas Ale, aged it in bourbon casks, and loved the way it tasted. So we’re going to make that our first corked 750-milliliter offering.

Chicagoist would like to thank Greg Hall for agreeing to the interview and Goose Island marketing manager Wei Fraser for her assistance in setting it up.

12:35 p.m. Corrections: We need to correct some errors in the article, pointed out by Greg Hall after reading. 1) Pabst Blue Ribbon is brewed by Miller. 2) John Hall put Greg in charge of the brewery at the brewpub when he first started. 3) The brewmaster at Three Floyds who worked at Goose Island was Jim Cibak, not Nick Floyd. Chicagoist apologizes for the errors.