First a confession, then a major announcement.
The March 8 article announcing the kickoff of Beer Madness 2011 stated that all 64 breweries in the contest met the Brewers Association’s exacting definition of “craft.”
Well, that wasn’t true for one of our contestants.
Pere Jacques from Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago is a delicious brew, an abbey-style dubbel full of chocolatey and molasses-like flavors from the specialty malts and a delicate fruitiness that reminded me of plums and raisins (and which fellow taster Hiromi Kowaguchi likened to apricot).
But technically, it’s not craft. Goose Island fails to meet the BA’s standard of independence: “Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled...by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.” (You can read the full definition here.)
Since 2006, 42 percent of Goose Island has been owned by the Portland-based Craft Brewers Alliance, which consists of the Redhook, Widmer and Kona breweries and is itself not craft because it’s 32 percent owned by Anheuser-Busch.
Within the next 30-35 days, Goose Island will be even less craft in the BA’s eyes when a deal closes that will make Anheuser-Busch the sole owner of the Chicago brewery. Industry giant A-B, a subsidiary of the international Anheuser-Busch InBev, is shelling out close to $40 million for Goose Island in order to dip its beak even further into the rapidly growing specialty beer market. (Read the letter of announcement.)
That doesn’t mean Goose Island will switch production to light lager and malt liquor. CEO and President John Hall, who will continue at his post after A-B takes the reins, stresses that Goose Island will remain committed to making full-flavored beers. The brewery’s next release, he says, will be Big John, a Russian imperial stout brewed with cocoa nibs.
Hall is aware that craft beer purists might not like what he’s done. “The publicity in Chicago is off the charts,” he says. “Polls in the papers are running 9 to1, saying it wasn’t a good idea for the city. I can understand, it’s like Macy’s buying out Marshall Field’s.”
Hall insists, however, that he desperately needs capital to expand. Goose Island had to drop three brands last year, including a Nut Brown Ale that won gold medals in the 2006 and 2010 World Beer Cups, because the brewery lacked tank space. He adds that his higher-alcohol experimental beers, like the Pere Jacques and the strong pale ale, Matilda, with its wild yeast funkiness, are growing at 100 percent or more a year.
In the short run, Anheuser-Busch will invest $1.3 million in Goose Island to buy new fermenters and otherwise beef up production. In the long run, Hall hopes to build a whole new brewery somewhere in the Windy City to make his everyday brands and reserve his current Fulton Street plant for what he calls his “vintage” and “extreme” ales.
Several online news sites quoted Dave Peacock, president of Anheuser-Busch, as saying that there are no plans to move production of Goose Island beers to St. Louis. However, Hall revealed that in a separate deal, he’s arranged to contract-brew up to 40,000 barrels of two of his brands at the Redhook brewery in Portsmouth, N.H. He insisted, however, that the Honkers Ale and Goose Island IPA made in New England will be identical in recipe and taste to the beers brewed in Chicago.
“I think this industry will grow like mad,” commented Hall, who predicts that in a few years 10 domestic specialty breweries will have reached or surpassed the half-million barrel mark (up from four at present). He anticipates that Goose Island, which turned out 127,000 barrels last year, will be one of them.
An update on my March 14 blog post about the growing number of craft selections in cans: North American Breweries, which owns Magic Hat Brewing Co., has confirmed that cans of Magic Hat #9 will indeed be available this summer in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. “Unfortunately, these states did not include orders in the initial order roll-up when I provided the list of states, but they will now be taking and selling this package to participating retailers,” stated Magic Hat’s Ryan Daley.
Even more exciting news: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. next year will join the list of craft breweries canning beer. According to spokesman Bill Manley, the Chico, Calif., brewery intends to package Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in 12-ounce cans and Torpedo Extra IPA in 16-ounce cans. Both will be available in four-packs.
Can Boston Beer Co., the craft beer industry’s leader, afford to keep dragging its feet? Sam in a can might not be far behind.