Dissecting the Golden Goose: Still Chicago’s “Craft” Beer?

When Anthony broke the news about Goose Island to me on Monday morning, I was shocked. I sincerely did not see it coming. I could tell that as a native of Chicago, Anthony was furious with Goose Island and felt betrayed. How? Namely, from the fevered texts of exasperation flying to my phone he mentioned in his article yesterday.

I sat at my desk at work and tried to work it through my mind what happened and slowly grew more and more agitated by it. Even though I am from Minnesota, it felt wrong that Goose Island, the makers of Island Bourbon Barrel Stout, would hand the reins over to Anheuser-Busch, the makers of Bud Light Lime.

In fact, it still feels wrong even after a few days of letting the initial wave of anger subside. I understand the move from a business perspective for both Goose Island, who wants to expand the reach of its distribution and tap into non-regional markets, and from Anheuser-Busch, who wants to revamp their image by brewing something full of flavor, depth and color that didn’t come from a concentrate of natural lime flavor. Anthony’s article yesterday did a great job in laying out the positives that will come out of this sale and for the most part I agree with his analysis. But I still can’t shake the feeling that I just watched something really wrong.

It’s almost as if the New York Yankees, the team with the greatest brand and buying power in the MLB, began selling the tickets for the Tampa Bay Rays, a team built up from scratch on fundamental baseball, and then decided to buy the Rays’ entire starting line-up to fill out the Yankees 40 man roster. The only nice thing about the Yankees’ power to buy their World Series Championship is the fact it gives me something to root against during the season.

Now, I’m not saying that just because Anheuser-Busch bought Goose Island that Goose Island’s beers are going to change or suffer a decrease in quality. In fact, the company will be investing more in Goose Island making it an even stronger brand and I would bet that Goose Island will be allowed to continue to hold a lot of creative control to produce other great beers to add to their repertoire. My main concern with the acquisition is that Anheuser-Busch has the power to give Goose Island that creative control and take it away at any time. Moreover, Anheuser-Busch will almost assuredly use their marketing to leverage their new “craft” beer over others, which brings up another interesting conversation. Can Goose Island still be considered “Chicago’s Craft Beer”?

If you were to look at the definition of a Craft Brewer, you will find three overarching criteria: a craft brewery is small, traditional and independent. These three criteria describe how craft brewing is unique from macro and how it holds such a special place in the brewing community. The small size of a craft brewery allows for a great amount of innovation and shifts in direction since it doesn’t carry the lumbering “brand-mass” that larger companies do. The adherence to tradition keeps the brewing process alive for the next generation of new brewers. The independence of a craft brewery from outside economic influences in the alcoholic beverage industry and thus keeps the power in the hands of the craft brewer.

Let me be clear. I am all for a craft brewery going to the next level of brewing, but when it is at the expense of the control of the company and it gives an industry giant even more control of the market, I am not for it. I understand the argument that if the beer is as good as it was (or better), then that’s all that matters. But craft beer should be a point of pride for the brewer and for the drinker, a feeling of connection between a community and region with a beer, not just another strategic piece to add to the portfolio. I’m afraid that’s all I’ll ever be able to taste when I drink Goose Island from here on out.

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