I think Goose Island was the first brewpub I ever visited, not too long after you opened. Tell me how the brewery began and how you moved into the company.
My father [John Hall] was in the paper packaging business, which was a good business, but about the least sexy business there is. And he was on the financial side, the least sexy part of the least sexy business. In the mid-eighties, the company he worked for was bought by a competitor and he had the opportunity to move to another city or take the early retirement package. He was about the age I am right now: I was going to college and my sister was starting high school. He went out on a limb, for a pretty conservative guy, and decided to open a brewery and a restaurant at the same time, without any experience in either one of them.
In his work life, he’d done quite a bit of traveling. Everywhere he went, he enjoyed the local beers. He always came back to Chicago where everybody he knew drank beer, but where there wasn’t any local beer. It seemed to be a tremendous opportunity just waiting to happen. Then he decided he was going to be the guy to make it happen.
Who took on the brewing?
He hired good old Karl Strauss as a consultant, who helped a lot of people in the eighties and nineties to get their start. Karl led him to Victor Ecimovic (the Third). Victor’s grandfather had worked at Peter Hand [an old Chicago brewery]. Victor was an engineer by trade, he went through Siebel [Institute’s brewing program] and he was a man from Chicago who wanted to brew. So he became the first brewmaster when we opened in 1988.
I was at the time a student at the University of Iowa. My father offered me a job for the summer as Victor’s assistant, or as Victor put it, his helper. He always introduced me: “This is my helper.” I was pretty much the unglorified grunt, doing all the janitorial stuff, dumping bags and cleaning them out, getting the spent grain out and bringing grain in, washing and filling kegs.
So that was the beginning of the knee problems, way back then?
Exactly. It was glorious. It was the most fun I ever had. And the best part was that at the end of the day, we’d made a batch of beer, and we’d go off to the bar and not only be able to drink it, but have all these people say “Wow, you guys made this beer here in Chicago?” It was more exciting than anything I’d done before. On top of that, I found out that everybody who was waiting tables at our brewpub had a liberal arts degree from a Big Ten university.
Is that where you were headed?
Yes, I was actually an English major at Iowa, with a creative writing bent. Now I write beer labels instead of short stories. They’re very, very, very short stories.
I found I really liked the idea of a family business, so I decided I’d take a year off and see how I did in the beer business. I loved it. I went to Siebel in ‘89 with brewers from all over the world―David Grinnell from Boston Beer, Rob who’s now in Madison at Great Dane. I had a great class, and a great time, then came back to the brewpub. Victor left in ‘91, and so I took over as head brewer at the pub at that point.
When did you start bottling?
In ’95, we opened the Fulton Street brewery, and that’s when we started bottling and distributing our beer. Then in ‘99 we bought a failed brewpub right across from Wrigley Field and opened there.
How is it working with your dad?
Well, we often don’t agree on things, but the nice thing is, with his financial background, he’s most comfortable sitting behind a desk looking at spreadsheets all day. I would rather poke my eyes out and set them on fire than do that.
So there’s a very healthy division of labor!
He’s not really the technical brewer, and he’s not quite as comfortable in front of the an audience, so I do a lot of that. I’m still very involved in the brewing side and a little involved in the restaurant and brewpub side. He keeps me in line. I have no shortage of ideas of things to do next, but it takes a lot to convince him to do anything new, so anything that we do, we generally have a well developed plan.
Your brewery has changed in remarkable ways over they years. The first beer I had there was Honker’s Ale―which I assume is still your flagship. But it’s a long way from Honker’s Ale to Matilda or Sofie. You had a very traditional brewpub start, but you’ve kept moving forward.
A lot of it is good fortune. One piece of good fortune is a store by the name of Sam’s Wine and Spirits, which is right across the street from us. They have one of the best beer selections, not just in Chicago but in the country, so I got to sample a lot of stuff that piqued my interest. And when I had time off, I’d travel generally to England or Belgium and visit as many breweries as I could in a week or two. I really got into all these different flavors.
One of the great things about a brewpub is that you don’t have to go through TTB [government label approval] for every beer―nothing against TTB, of course. But you can make a new beer, put it on the chalkboard, and you’ve got a new brand. When I took over from Victor, we kept six beers on tap all the time with one of them rotating, I thought, there’s really nothing stopping us from doing a lot more beer than that. Pretty soon, we were on a schedule doing about 40 different beers a year. It became our own little laboratory. We would try mostly ales to start, but with the help of the people at Wyeast and White Labs, we started using different yeast strains and having fun.
It’s so great when you visit other breweries. We’re all colleagues in this. There are not really a lot of secrets. Generally, the more specialized someone’s process is, the more apt they are to want to show it off, which I think is pretty unique in industries.