Didn’t Matt Brynildson from Firestone-Walker get his start with you?
Yeah, Matt was a brainy, skinny young kid with a little bit more hair on top than he has now and a lot more on his chin. He was at Kalsec [Kalamazoo Spice Extraction Co] and went through Siebel. Christopher Bird, who had worked for us for several years in the brewpub, at the time was the registrar for Siebel, and he called me up and said “This kid is so sharp. You’ve got to hire him before somebody else does.” We brought him in, and within about eight or ten months made him head brewer, because he delved into every single thing we were doing and helped us set up a lot of the stuff we’ve got now.
We also had great help in the early days from a woman named Bronwyn Tulloch. Jim Helmke used to be an instructor at Siebel, and he was getting married to Bronwyn. She had been doing QC for Labatt in Canada. She came to Chicago with Jim and needed a job, and we were opening a brewery. We way, way, way underpaid her, and she set up our lab. So we had some really talented people in the early days that helped us get Fulton Street going, with quality control procedures that have not only allowed us to make good beer, but to do a great job training our people and getting into many different yeast strains, which not every brewery does.
In craft brewing, so much attention goes to the two coasts. You Chicagoans sit defiantly in the middle. Do you think you get the attention you should?
No, of course not: we never will. But we get more than we used to. Chicago is just beginning to develop a bigger brewing community, with three breweries opening in the city this last year. Having more local breweries is great, and most of the local brewers worked for Goose Island at one point, so we’ve got really good relationships.
You’re in an odd position. As far as I’m concerned, no one is making a better or more varied range of beers, including some really cutting-edge beers. And yet your decision to join the Craft Brewing Alliance has cost you in some respects: you’re no longer defined as a “craft brewery,” which is goofy.
It’s extraordinarily goofy. We did it because for one reason: distribution. We were with a wine and spirits wholesaler, which did a really good job getting us up to a certain level. But it was clear they weren’t going to be able to grow us beyond that. We’d hit the ceiling in Chicago. Our best opportunity was to get into this alliance. It’s worked out great for us, and we think it’s worked out great for beer drinkers, because they can get craft beer in more places than they could before. Down state says it all: it will never be as big a market as Chicago, but we used to sell about eight thousand cases down state, and now it’s about a hundred thousand. There’s a lot of counties that had no craft beer until Goose Island came in. We’ve got more brewers, we pay the brewers better and give them better benefits because we’re selling more beer, and I don’t see how that’s a bad thing.
Are you bugged that you’ve no longer in the craft brewers’ club?
It comes up once or twice a week on the beer blogs: “Oh, Goose Island’s owned by A-B. It’s just Budweiser.” We kind of joke that all of our beers are better now with the beechwood aging. The biggest benefit I see as a brewer is that we have fresh beer all the time. St. Louis has trained their wholesalers to be fanatical about fresh beer. There is zero old beer.
You’ve drawn attention to the loss of traditional workingmen’s bars around Chicago in recent years and what that means to communities. You’re also well known for your connections to fine dining and some very high-end Chicago restaurants. Are you comfortable in both worlds?
Totally. That’s the great thing about beer right now. It moves so easily between worlds. My sister works in a bar called the Chipp Inn, which is one of the diviest dives you’ll ever imagine. We now have three of the four beers on tap, including Matilda, which is shocking. I’d say three-quarters of the clientele are drinking High Life or PBR, whatever’s on special. Then some hipster or a working guy will come in and plop down seven to eight dollars for Matilda.
You’ve got quite an affection for dives.
Of course. That’s what’s so cool is the history of the pub: it’s a public house. About 1,000 years before Starbucks came up with the concept, the pub had invented “the third place.” There’s really nothing better than sitting around a pub, meeting friends. Beer is that nice social elixir that makes that possible. That’s what’s unique about beer, compared with the other so-called adult beverages.