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.
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.
I guess no one calls up and suggests going out for “a quick Manhattan.”
Or if they do, they don’t do it with 12 of their friends from college. Or you don’t bring the whole workforce down to have champagne after work. You go grab a beer.
Sometimes, I think some people in the brewing community get a little too passionate about one brewery versus another brewery. It’s all beer, and beer’s good. Michael Jackson taught me a very valuable lesson the very first time I saw him. He was doing a beer tasting, and he had a list of seven or eight beers. One of the ones I had not had before was from a Midwestern brewer that was not distributed in Chicago, so I was super-excited to try it. It was so cool to see Michael Jackson for the first time. But he skipped the beer that I wanted to taste the most, didn’t say one thing about it. Afterwards, I said “Michael”―no, I probably called him “Mr. Jackson” back then―“what happened to the porter you were going to pour?” He said, “Well, I tasted it, and it didn’t taste the way it’s supposed to.” And I said “Why didn’t you let everybody else try it?” and he said “I knew the brewer wouldn’t want us to taste it that way, so I skipped it.” He was the original advocate for beer. He rarely said anything cross about anybody’s beers.
There were too many good things to say.
Absolutely. There are so many good things to say about beer, why bother talking about the things you don’t like, when there are so many things to like?
Ten or 15 years from now, what will be going on with Goose Island and with you―replacement knees permitting?
Hopefully, I will have the same knees in 15 years. I’m quite sure that craft beer as a category will continue to grow. The most exciting thing is, what will come next? Beer’s gotten hoppier than anyone ever expected it would get, then barrel-aging goes nuts, and Belgians are going nuts. Now sour is the new hoppy, as I tweet about once a week. What else does beer have to conquer? I don’t know. But it’s going to keep going.
America is full of entrepreneurs who want to do something different: it’s why people got on the boat in the first place. Nowhere is that more true than in the craft beer industry, and it’s thrilling to be a part of it.
We were working on a saison brewed with lavender, and we’re like, that’s cool, I don’t think anyone’s brewed with lavender. Then somebody I know from Europe calls me up, and he says, “I just had a beer from the Bruery in California brewed with lavender.” Damn. They beat us. But that’s great, too. Is wine coming up with anything like this? No, not at all.