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John Hall Steps Down As Goose Island Beer Co. CEO

By Lorna Juett in Food on Nov 16, 2012 8:20PM

Former Goose Island CEO John Hall. (Photo via Hall's Facebook page.)

News broke Thursday evening that John Hall would be stepping down as CEO of Goose Island Beer Company. While this should come as no surprise to those who follow the brand and the $33.8 Million Anheuser-Busch buyout that happened 18 months ago, he also took COO and founding member Tony Bowker with him. This is one of the final upper-level personnel moves that gives Anheuser-Busch managing control over Chicago’s largest craft brewery.

Hall and Bowker will retain some input on Goose Island as part of a newly formed AB Craft Beer Advisory Board. Andy Goeler takes over the CEO position. Goeler was responsible for Anheuser Busch's development and marketing of Shock Top and Stella Artois. He has also served on the board of the Craft Beer Alliance.

Chicagoist spoke with both Hall and Goeler this morning to find out more about this change. We asked Hall about his future involvement with Goose Island. He told us, “I will still be involved and offer my advice on the direction of what I think it [Goose Island] is.” He elaborated, “we’re going to be able to get more, better beer, to more people, and that’s what it’s all about. That’s what we want to continue to do.”

Admittedly, Hall’s decision to leave Goose Island ultimately came down to a personal choice. Hall told us that “I’ve been doing this for a long, long time and the job only takes more. I’m looking at my family and where I am, and it’s time to spend more time with them.”

While beers like 312 and Honker’s Ale will be brewed elsewhere, the Vintage Series beers like Matilda, Pepe Nero, the Bourbon County beers, and the Fulton and Wood series still will retain their small-batch status, and all the cache that comes along with it. Per Goeler, “those brands aren’t about large buying, those are more for the connoisseur, they’re small batch. we have no intention of changing that at all.”

Of course, the words of Hall and Goeler are just that and its the actions that merit watching. It’s assumed that when a company like Anheuser-Busch purchases a brewery like Goose Island, the intention is to expand the brand as much as possible and to profit heavily on that expansion. We don't fault Hall for making a prudent business decision, we don’t have a reason to distrust Goeler, and we should have some pride in seeing a Chicago business succeed on the national scene, but it’s hard to not feel a little bit of sadness. It's become more clear that “our” brewery is no longer ours.

It's not just the casual consumer who feels trepidation when the big guy takes over a little guy. Lagunitas owner Tony Magee sent a series of very Craft Beer vs. Big Beer based Tweets that referenced the Goose Island buyout from a beer conference on Nov. 13, and drove his points home with a more cogent statement the following day.

To paraphrase, Magee feels big beer (Anheuser-Busch, Miller-Coors) is all about itself, and the drinker is just a demographic that spends money. By contrast, the craft beer industry is all about the drinker and his experience, not just a bottom line. Magee goes so far as to say, “When you drink those beers [from major breweries], delicious or not, you support the platform they will use to change the game. Lagunitas is not so big that we are in the entitlement class but we are big enough to see the landscape.” He goes on to say, “I’ve been doing this long enough now that I am done being silent about real threats to what we brewers all do and to what you consumers (our owners) have available to them.”

Craft beer lovers, what do you think? Is this a feel-good story of the Chicago child, Goose Island, making it big and supporting it’s family, employees, and consumers? Is this an insidious crime against the craft brewing industry? Or, are we just beating a dead horse by harping on a business deal that’s already done, when there are other craft breweries that need our support?

Only time will tell where the big guys and the little guys of the beer industry will end up, but since everyone loves an underdog, we’re rooting for the little guy.