With 500 cases coming off its packaging line and 50 kegs off its keg line every hour, there’s little doubt that America has a thirst for the beers of Chicago-based Goose Island Brewing Co.
Goose Island beers can now be bought in all 50 states, and they are a draft mainstay at numerous bars and restaurants throughout the country. The company, which was bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2011, also has brewpubs in the USA, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Brazil, China and South Korea.
“I’m still in awe when I see our beer in a neighboring state, let alone outside the U.S.,” says Todd Ahsmann, the president of the brewery that has played a pivotal role in the craft-beer explosion since it was founded in 1988.
Despite the brewery’s widespread popularity, nearly every major Goose Island brand was down in sales nationally last year in grocery, convenience, big box and drug stores. According to the Chicago Tribune, market research firm IRI reported that sales last year of 312 Urban Wheat Ale fell 19%; Green Line Pale Ale and Four Star Pils sales dropped 35%; Honker’s Ale sales declined 49%, and the brewery’s variety packs were down 33%. Draft beer sales are not included in the data.
Goose Island IPA had “the only significant growth, up 29%, because it’s priced aggressively and it’s a companywide priority, on par with Budweiser, Bud Light and Stella Artois,” the Chicago Tribune said. “But even that success came with an asterisk: Goose Island IPA was surpassed in sales rank by Founders Brewing’s All Day IPA, which dropped Goose Island IPA from the nation’s third-biggest-selling IPA to fourth.”
Ahsmann doesn’t express doubts about the future of Goose Island beers.
“There are always ups and downs in business,” he says. “We are confident that maintaining our focus on delivering the best possible beers to the world will sustain our brand over the long term. We’re doubling down on driving innovation across the board to continue perfecting our classic styles while rolling out new and exciting beers for fans to fall in love with.
“We had so many great new beers in the hopper that we were probably just a little too late on scaling them up to keep our portfolio fresh. These days, the consumer expects a steady stream of new beers to surround the flagships. We had the beers, but we just kept them very local. Expect more to make it out to market in the very near future.”
In August, Goose Island announced it was releasing eight variants (see full details below) this year: Original Bourbon County Brand Stout, Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout, Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine, Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout, Bourbon County Brand Bramble Rye Stout, Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine and Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout.
Variants are often limited releases of barrel-aged beers or beers with added ingredients such as chocolate, vanilla or coffee. They are frequently the most desired beers by beer aficionados.
Goose Island says its long-time brewmaster Greg Hall created the world’s first beer aged in bourbon barrels more than 20 years ago after he had “a chance encounter” with Jim Beam distiller Booker Noe and acquired the barrels.
Hall’s dad, John Hall, founded Goose Island as a Chicago brewpub in 1988 and soon became an important figure in the burgeoning craft-brewing industry. He stepped down as Goose Island’s CEO in 2012, a year after the brewery’s $38.8 million sale to Anheuser-Busch InBev.
With huge growth in the number of breweries during the past two decades, the competition has become fierce, and many aficionados have abandoned the biggest craft breweries’ staples and turned to the products of newer, smaller breweries.
“On our brewery’s garage door,” Ahsmann says, “we have the painted phrase, ‘We don’t need to be the only beer you drink, we just want to be the best beer you drink.’ I’ll leave it at that.”
The growth of craft beer has “only been a good thing for the beer scene,” he says. “What you see is thousands of breweries competing to convert everyday drinkers into craft enthusiasts and teaching them to appreciate beer in ways maybe they hadn’t. I think the market proliferation is really a rising tide that will lift up everyone who’s out there making great beer.”
That sounds very similar to Ahsmann’s aim at the helm of Goose Island.
“My top goal will always be, first and foremost, to make great beer while staying authentic to who we’ve always been and making sure our employees work in a safe and respectful environment,” he says. “I’ve lived in Chicago for most of my life and truly love our city and what it’s meant for Goose Island. So I want us to be good stewards of our community socially and environmentally.
“From a business perspective, I want to keep pushing the envelope of innovation. Our founder was never elitist or exclusive to whom he wanted to enjoy our beer. If I can bring more people into the beer category through our innovation and consumer experiences, then I will feel like I’ve made John proud.”
The following are the eight innovative beers Goose Island is releasing this year, and some of Goose Island’s comments about them.
*Original Bourbon County Brand Stout. Aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels more than four years old, the original bourbon barrel-aged stout “is as good as when we first made it more than 20 years ago.” Flavors of cocoa, vanilla, caramel, almond, cherry, leather and tobacco “permeate this complex beer that deepens with each sip.”
*Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout. It’s the same recipe as Original Bourbon County Brand Stout but aged in 12-year old Elijah Craig Barrel Proof bourbon barrels. This bourbon was awarded 2017 Whisky of the Year by Whisky Advocate, the top honor in the world of international whiskey. Reserve is “intended to showcase the nuances of a premium single source and highly sought after bourbon.”
*Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout. This year’s Proprietor’s explores “the broad spectrum of chocolate.” Using dark chocolate and two types of cocoa nibs, “this rich and decadent beer highlights the whole range of chocolate from smooth and silky milk chocolate flavors to deep and earthy dark chocolate.”
*Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine. Made from two-row and malted wheat, Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine is making its debut this year. Wheatwine is a deep amber color, full of caramel, vanilla, butterscotch and toffee flavors. It is “lighter than its Bourbon County Brand Stout counterparts and a true medium to convey the characteristics” of more than 4-year-old Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels.
*Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout. “This longtime favorite is making a long-awaited return to the Bourbon County Brand Stout roster.” Using whole grade A vanilla beans from Madagascar, this year’s Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout delivers “all the quintessential things fans love about this variant: aromatic vanilla, marshmallow, toffee, oak and floral notes” that highlight “the creamy mouthfeel” and enhance the ingrained chocolate flavors.
*Bourbon County Brand Bramble Rye Stout. For this variant, Bourbon County Brand Stout was aged in rye whiskey barrels, and then raspberry and blackberry juice and puree from Michigan and Washington were added. “The result is complex jammy fruit notes that are prominent but well integrated with the caramel and chocolate flavors of the beer and spicy rye character from the barrels.”
*Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine. Goose Island flew down to Guatemala “to source some of the world’s best coffee” to use in its first coffee barleywine. The beer is an English-style barleywine, “meaning it’s malt forward.” It was aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels more than four years old, and La Soledad coffee beans were added before packaging “to retain a bold coffee aroma and flavor.”
*Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout. Goose Island combined orange and chocolate, “taking Bourbon County into a new and exciting direction. While the chocolate compliments the Bourbon County base, the orange zest offers a point of contrast for a bold new flavor profile.”