Talking "Craft Beer Sellouts" With The Guy Who Wrote The Book On Them

Nothing riles up the craft beer world like news of yet another brewery getting bought up by "Big Beer." Chicago's Goose Island was the first such acquisition by Anheuser-Busch back in 2011, and at the time, no one could be certain what lay ahead for the industry. Now, a mere seven years later, Anheuser-Busch InBev has bought up nine more breweries, including craft darlings like Seattle's Elysian and Asheville, North Carolina's Wicked Weed. Other alcohol companies including Constellation, MillerCoors, Heineken, and Duvel Moortgat have done the same. Consolidation has become familiar in even the rebellious world of craft beer, just as it has in other industries.

So 2018 is just the right time for the publication of Josh Noel's Barrel-Aged Stout And Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, And How Craft Beer Became Big Business, out on June 1 from Chicago Review Press. Noel, the Chicago Tribune's beer and travel reporter, has the benefit of both hindsight and foresight. Enough years have passed since the first craft brewery "sold out" to show the beer world what that process looks like, but we're still in the midst of craft beer's collective path forward. There are more breweries in the U.S. than at any other time in history—but what the future of American craft beer looks like is still defined day by day, pint by pint.

Having read Noel's book, not only do I highly recommend it to beer fans, but I'd suggest it to anyone interested in business, art, and how the two collide. Josh Noel and I spoke by phone about beer, business, and why Big Beer means business in the craft world.

The Takeout: How and when did craft beer take on a moral sheen? Did the breweries themselves create that? 

Josh Noel: I think it was there from the beginning, because craft beer was very much a reaction to Big Beer initially. It was so long ago now, relatively, but there were fewer than 100 breweries in the late '70s. There was no choice on American taps and beer shelves, and craft beer was a reaction to that. It gave us diversity and flavor, and it was a delicious underdog. I think it developed that moral sheen very sincerely and very deservedly.

TO: Is craft beer still countercultural?

JN: Parts of it are countercultural. The parts that are really true about experimentation and the next thing, I think that's countercultural. The first New England IPA was pretty countercultural and now they've been sort of commodified. But now, someone's laboring on the next countercultural thing in beer. A beautiful, unfiltered pilsner is almost countercultural these days—now, it's like dropping the gimmicks and the bullshit is countercultural.

TO: What was the most misunderstood aspect of the Goose Island deal?

JN: I think there's a lot of them... Probably the most revealing ones to me were the amount of discord that was happening behind the scenes as Goose Island was becoming a part of the Anheuser-Busch machine. A lot of that stuff was just out of view and media was actually reporting the opposite. But as a part of the media who was telling the story at that time, how were we supposed to know? I guess that's what we're supposed to do as journalists, and digging in is what I got to do with this book.

TO: What was the most surprising piece of what you learned?

JN: The fact that [Goose Island founder] John Hall had actually written a letter of resignation because he was so fed up with how Anheuser-Busch was handling Goose Island was really surprising to me. So I was surprised as I gained more understanding of A-B's role in all of this. I don't think I realized the degree to which they have evolved. From the outside it looks like they bought their first craft brewery in 2011 and went on to buy nine more, but it's not that simple. And I didn't realize until I dug in that there was a really profound evolution within that company since they bought Goose Island. They didn't know what they were doing at the beginning. And I think they've figured it out. To their credit, these guys are some of the most brilliant business people in the world. I think they figured it out certainly more than they haven't.

TO: What question or detail would you have loved to answer or decipher but couldn't answer?

JN: I guess that there's no limit to the amount of information I would have liked to have turned up on the mechanics of Anheuser-Busch's acquisition spree. I was able to find out that they were close to acquiring Firestone-Walker, but that didn't happen. That was a nice development to turn over. I was glad to find out that Left Hand took the meeting with them, even though they had no intention of selling. I know that there were other deals that got close and weren't executed; I'd like to have details and a strong narrative on each one of those. But those things are really hard to turn up. There's no public record; there's no paper trail; they're signing non-disclosure agreements.

TO: Do you believe that what's in the glass, the beer itself, matters most?

JN: I don't think it's the only thing that matters, partially because there's so much good beer out there now. I enjoy going to a taproom and buying a beer that was made three days ago on the other side of that wall. I think that's cool, and I prefer that experience to buying something made in a massive, faceless brewing plant 1000 miles away. If you're writing about Goose Island IPA in 2018, you're doing a disservice to your reader if you're not talking about the fact that it's made by Anheuser-Busch. It's a Goose Island brand, not a Goose Island beer.

TO: It's really hard for consumers to understand the distribution portion of the industry, yet that's where a lot of important choices and rules and laws play out. How can the public follow it? Should they have to?

JN: I personally think yes, it's important, but that aligns with my own personal politics. I will always come down on the side of knowing where your money goes when you spend it. It's not fun to pay attention to that stuff; it's complicated. Because I think it's important personally and as a journalist, that's why I spent a lot of effort trying to make [the distribution tier] very clear for people [in the book] and in a way that would educate and resonate with people. I didn't want to get lost in the weeds, didn't want this to be geared toward the 1 percent of beer nerd. That said, some people just won't give a shit—the "if it tastes good, I'm going to drink it" crowd. It was important for me to lay the information out for those people and I hope the whole distribution tier and Anheuser-Busch's role in it does matter to people.

TO: How big of a threat to the vibrancy of craft do you think "the illusion of choice" is, or seeing what looks like a bunch of different beers on a menu that are all actually owned by the same company?

JN: I think the illusion of choice argument is real. I think Anheuser-Busch is fairly clearly banking on the illusion of choice and being able to have six things on tap from "six different breweries" that may not in fact be six different breweries; they may all come from the same tanks. So yeah, I think it's probably a very long way away, but the Anheuser-Busch strategy could chip away at consumer choice... Anheuser-Busch is out to get as big as it can in craft, which is just not true of most of the breweries if you think about it. [Chicago brewery] Half Acre is not out to get as big as it can; the best breweries operate on consumer pull rather than pushing to consumers. The long-term effects could be pretty severe in terms of beer choice, but they're decades away.

TO: At the end of all this, how do you feel about Anheuser-Busch? Is it good or bad for American beer overall; neutral; or both?

JN: I mean there's journalistic neutrality; I'm just sort of here to chronicle it. But then honestly when you write a book about something, your relationship with it goes a bit deeper than it does with a 600-word newspaper article. Now with the hindsight of book writing, I'd say I have a lot of admiration for those guys. I think they're very smart. They're fairly progressive and open minded, I think way more than the old A-B people were back when it was St. Louis- and American-run. These guys are worldly, and aggressive, and just really sharp . That said, they're also a $250 billion or so company hyper-focused on shareholder return and they're out to dominate American beer and American craft beer. And I think those are both the realities of the situation.

TO: What do you see the beer landscape looking like 10 years from now? 25 years?

JN: Breweries will sort of hit the [saturation] number eventually. [Former Goose Island brewmaster] Greg Hall has long said it will be about 10,000, which I buy. You can go into a lot of communities in this country and find fresh beer made locally and that's a great thing. I think A-B will be the biggest craft beer company in the U.S. and never relinquish that title, ever.