I have a running joke about a game I call “Things That Happen When Anheuser-Busch Buys You.” As many beer fans will recognize, this game refers to global brewing behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev buying Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. three years ago for $38.8 million.
The game simply involves stumbling upon the things that can only happen to a once-independent business after it sells itself to a much larger company. So far the list includes spying an el car wrapped in the Goose Island logo and a Kia sedan in deep Tennessee painted bright yellow to look something like a can of the brewery’s 312 Urban Wheat Ale.
Last week I came face-to-face with the granddaddy of Things That Happen When Anheuser-Busch Buys You — Goose Island’s own hop farm in the Idaho panhandle.
Situated 10 miles south of the Canadian border, Elk Mountain Farm does not belong exclusively to Goose Island, but it has become the brewery’s dominant hop supplier. (Hops are one of beer’s four core ingredients — along with malted barley, water and yeast — and the most dominant flavor in many popular styles).
Back when it was independently owned, Goose Island contracted to buy hops from an array of farmers like most every other brewery. A few months after the sale that stunned the beer world, Goose Island’s new corporate parent said, “By the way, we’re barely using this hop farm that we own in northern Idaho. Do you want us to grow some hops for you?”
The answer was a definitive yes. Goose now has access to nearly a dozen Elk Mountain hop varieties, including all the hops featured in, for instance, 312 Urban Pale Ale, a beer that the brewery rolled out to national distribution earlier this year. Anheuser-Busch had been growing a mere 300 acres of hops when it bought Goose Island; the farm is up to 1,300 acres, and aims for more.
The breweries last week hosted 15 beer writers at Elk Mountain Farm, a visit timed to coincide with the beginning of the hop harvest. The land is in a wondrous corner of the world — unspoiled and rolling Idaho, with pine-studded mountains in all directions and thick, unmoving clouds. It’s also perfectly situated to grow hops, at slightly below 50 degrees latitude.
We were there for 36 hours, but it was a packed day and a half. We toured the long rows of hop vines, thickly green and reaching 20 feet tall; we visited the rumbling, tumbling processing facility where raw, wet hops are separated from their stems and leaves; we saw the kiln where they are laid 3 feet deep and dried with a soft 130-degree breeze from below; we saw where they are packaged before being shipped to Washington to be converted to the pellets used during brewing.
But the most powerful thing on display was the unlikely merging of two breweries. Goose Island and Anheuser-Busch, it is clear, have become most simpatico. Though they maintain separate identities — Anheuser-Busch is the Budweiser-making giant with 18 North American breweries; Goose Island is the Chicago brewer still dedicated to intricate beers like the forthcoming Proprietor’s stout with panela sugar, coconut water, cinnamon and cocoa nibs. But they have become a proud and indisputable pair, sharing technology, expertise and resources — like a hop farm in northern Idaho.
Top players from both breweries were on hand, and they admitted that the early days of the partnership were, if not uneasy, an exercise in patience. Goose Island’s lead brewer, Keith Gabbett, acknowledged concern that the brewery had been bought to cut costs and change its mission. Looking out over a sea of hops drying in the kiln, Gabbett said he has concluded that Goose Island is largely better off from the sale; there are simply more resources. He was wearing an Elk Mountain Farm baseball cap bearing a Budweiser logo as we talked, as if it was the most natural thing he could be doing — which, at this point, it clearly is.
If the idea of the trip was also to humanize the juggernaut that is Anheuser-Busch, it mostly worked. Peter Wolfe, an A-B hop scientist, is a home brewer who waxed more rhapsodically about the science of hops than any craft brewer I’ve ever met. Jane Killebrew, A-B’s director of brewing, quality and innovation, raved about how corporate life has relaxed since Belgian-based beer giant InBev bought Anheuser-Busch, even though she was among those forced to trade an office for a cubicle.
Pete Kraemer, the Anheuser-Busch head brew master and a vice president in the company — you might recognize him from his national television commercials — was warm and seemingly candid. In fact, he was the person who told me that capacity at the current Goose Island brewery on Fulton Street is expected to max out in 2017. The next step, he said, will likely be renovating and expanding the current brewery, building a second Chicago brewery or exporting more Goose production to A-B breweries.
Some form of growth is inevitable, he said, because A-B plans to continually increase Goose Island’s reach. Goose, whose production has grown markedly every year under A-B ownership, is on pace to brew about 450,000 barrels of beer this year. That’s still a ways behind the biggest craft players — Sierra Nevada (which sold 985,000 barrels in 2013, according to the Brewers Association), New Belgium (792,000) and Lagunitas (on pace for 650,000 this year). The plan is for Goose to be as ubiquitous as those breweries — and soon.
“We can be at a million barrels in three or four years,” Kraemer said. “We have the tools to do it.”
Indeed — we were standing in one of them.
The whirlwind visit ended with dinner at a long row of wood tables topped with candles and beer glasses in a hop field; the amarillo hops that are key to Goose Island’s Sofie farmhouse ale hung in the trellises around us.
For each course, a representative of one of the breweries discussed the beer served. Among them was an amber lager called Faust, based on a 115-year-old recipe from a historic St. Louis restaurant; A-B debuted the beer this summer as a St. Louis-only and draft-only release. An A-B executive described the beer as an attempt to connect intimately and uniquely with its community. It was also a page ripped straight from the Goose Island playbook — in Chicago, Green Line pale ale is that local-and-draft only offering (and it predates A-B’s purchase of the company). Faust was an obvious case of the older brother taking a cue from the little brother.
Goose Island beers poured at our hop field dinner included Matilda (paired with elk loin with onion brulee, fennel, roasted Idaho potatoes with fresh herbs and huckleberry demi-glace) and Bourbon County Brand Stout (paired with a huckleberry pie-chocolate torte-stout truffle dessert). A Los Angeles-based Goose Island brand ambassador extolled the virtues of Matilda as a riff on, and tribute to, Orval, a classic Belgian ale. Goose Island brew master Brett Porter introduced Bourbon County Brand Stout saying, “There are a lot of bourbon-barrel aged beers now — we were the first.”
Goose Island was indeed there first — in 1993, long before anyone in that hop field had anything to do with the brewery. The fact that Sofie, Matilda and Bourbon County Brand Stout were products of the old Goose Island — the one started by John Hall and led by the vision of Hall’s son, Greg — went unmentioned and, in the context, unimportant.
But Anheuser-Busch bought Goose Island for moments just like this: a glorious summer evening in an Idaho hop field at long candle-lit tables, where the biggest brewery in the world could lay claim to the kind of innovation it could never have pulled off itself. A-B’s problem wasn’t a lack of brewing skill or wanting to enter the craft beer market (it tried repeatedly before buying Goose Island). The issue was that no craft beer drinker wanted Bourbon-Barrel Aged Budweiser Stout. Such a beer had no history, no authenticity and no story — all of which Goose Island had. A-B knew as much, so it opened its wallet.
And in that hop field, it was wringing every last penny from its $38.8 million investment, the Goose Island folks not minding one bit.
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