Monday, March 28, 2011

Anheuser-Busch's purchase of Goose Island

Yeah, yeah, it's all over the waves now. The news dropped about an hour ago and, after careful consideration, I've decided to do a post on it. First off, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune, is the nitty-gritty of the deal:

Big shake up on the local beer scene: Goose Island Beer Co., responsible for the delicious (Bourbon Country Brand Stout) and the hugely popular (312 wheat ale) is being bought out by Anheuser-Busch.

The makers of Budweiser will pay a total of $38.8 million for the brewery on Fulton Street that sends its beers across the globe. Though jarring in an industry that prides itself on independence and creativity, the move isn't completely unexpected. Anheuser-Busch has had a hand in the company since 2006, when the Portland, Ore.-based Craft Brewers Alliance -- of which AB has a minority interest -- took a minority ownership of Goose. AB has played a role in Goose's distribution ever since. Brewmaster Greg Hall, whose father John Hall started the brewery in 1988, will be stepping down and replaced by (the appropriately named) head brewer Brett Porter. Porter was previous head brewer of well-respected Oregon brewery Deschutes Brewery before coming to Goose last year. Goose's two brew pubs in the city, on Clark Street and Clybourn Avenue, are not involved in the deal and will continue to be owned by John Hall and a group of partners.

The camps, at this point, are divided. There are a large amount of people that think that Anheuser-Busch will have an active hand in reducing the quality of the Goose Island brand and that this is a damn travesty. There's the other group of people that say that just because they've bought it doesn't mean you should get your knickers in a twist. Me? I'm in the middle here. There are some concerns that have wafted through my head as I've watched this unfold. To me, I think the pick-up by AB is a double-edged sword. It's nice to see them get extended distribution...but that may ruin them. Here's why.

As a brewer post-grad, there are a few concerns that come to mind in terms of manufacturing the beer. First off is the replacement of Greg Hall as head brewer with Brett Porter (which sounds like a wild fermented porter, really). This is really a short-term problem here as the transition of a head brewers will always bring about inconsistency. A lot of beer making is an organic, hands-on, process. That's why I love it. But when someone that's been brewing these beers for a long time (he is the son of the founder, after all) steps down and is replaced by someone that's been brewing them for a year, there's bound to be incongruities. Even a year-long apprenticeship learning about how to brew the Goose Island offerings won't allow Porter to exactly reproduce their beers. But, given a year or two, this should iron out as he gets comfortable with the brewery.
My major concern really lies with the supply chain issues of Goose Island. One lies with the beers themselves and the other lies with distribution of the beer. For the beers themselves, I can guarantee you that they use adjuncts in their beer. I can almost bloody well guarantee you that they do. An all-malt beer is not exactly easy to drink one after the other (EDIT: A friend of mine mentioned German lagers which raises a fair point. Exceptions to every generalization, I suppose. For our sake, let's look at American beers that generally have higher ABV, upwards of 6% for a "session beer", and body sans adjuncts). If you can drink their beers back to back, there's a likelihood that they're cutting the mash bill with some sort of adjunct. However, it's clear that the adjuncts they're using are of high quality. How do you know? Well, they don't taste like crap, that's why. Good quality raw materials yield good quality end products. Simple as that. However, AB does not use the highest quality adjuncts for it's beers (Bud is a large percentage rice, I believe). You can tell they don't because the quality of the beers they make isn't that great. I'm not saying I don't like Bud (it has it's place) but they definitely have an "adjuncty" taste that's associated with poorer quality raw materials. In this, I hope that Goose Island doesn't have to share the AB supply chain. If Goose Island were to have to draw it's supplies from AB instead of whatever private contractor they're currently using, this may cause a problem with the beer quality since they may very well be using the same adjuncts that are used in the kettle for Bud.

Another problem here is the distribution of Goose Island and what that may do to the beer itself. With a wider distribution range afforded by a linking of AB, this means there will be increased demand. I've never seen the GI brewery myself but I can't imagine that it would be able to handle everything that the consumer base of the AB brand can throw at it. This means that, if they aren't already, they may have to switch to high gravity brewing. High gravity brewing is, in essence, making a beer concentrate and then watering it down. You load your mash bill with almost double the amount of grain and you double the amount of hops in the kettle. You ferment it with plenty of yeast at a high gravity so that it comes out with a high ABV, super potent beer at the end. Then, using deoxygenated water, you filter the beer and cut it down to "sales gravity" or a normal ABV. This allows you to make a potent concentrate in your fermenters that you later cut, giving you a larger production volume for the same size fermenters. While this may sound like a godsend, there are some drawbacks. You do end up with a different chemical profile to the beer (less higher alcohols, more estery goodness). You also get a decreased head retention. Your yeast needs to work harder to cope with the additional sugars (as well as the higher final ABV) so you need to pitch more yeast. And this yeast, because of this stress, can't be used as many times as sales gravity brewing can be. And, most telling of all, the product you make, while consistent, often differs from the sales gravity product. In our program, we brewed both a sales gravity and high gravity beer and put them up in a blind taste test of 25 people. Of those 25 people, 10 could tell the difference between the beers. 40% could tell that there was a taste difference. (EDIT: Another friend brought up the fact that there is no statistical trend based on a test where a guess has a 33% chance of getting it right. While I'm generally inclined to agree, based on the ranges of pass/fail from other groups and their beer styles, I found it telling. Lighter beers tended to be less distinguishable while the darker beers tended to be more distinguishable. Take it as you will). This is not exactly something you want happening in a commercial setting, so they may need to adjust their beers with hop extract or caramel. Either they go high gravity, AB decides its worthwhile to buy them larger volume fermenters, or they have to contract out their beer to other AB facilities. And this is assuming that their beer recipes "work" for high gravity brewing. A lot of their higher ABV beers (even the ones approaching 6%) may not work in high gravity brewing. Since they wouldn't cut the beer as much (most high gravs are looking at ~5%) the flavor profile may not fit the traditionally brewed beer.

Is this to say that I won't drink Goose Island stuff anymore? Hell no. If anything, I'd drink it BECAUSE of these changes. Change is not a bad thing, folks. Change is only a bad thing if it's a change for the worse.

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