When the Brewers Association released its list of the top 50 craft breweries in the country for 2012, Chicago's Goose Island wasn't on it. Goose Island isn't categorized as craft, according to the association, because it's now owned by Anheuser-Busch Inc., the beverage conglomerate that makes Bud Light, Landshark, Michelob, Rolling Rock, Shock Top, and other brands. AB InBev bought Goose Island for $38.8 million in 2011.
So what's changed? According to Goose Island brewer Brian Taylor and educator Suzanne Wolcott, not much. The merger has taken the responsibilities of brewing flagship beers Honkers Ale and 312 Urban Wheat away from the brewers and allowed them to focus on speciality beers like Bourbon County Brand Stout (that's the beer aging in a barrel to the left) and Lolita, a tart ale brewed with raspberries that will soon be distributed in Massachusetts for the first time. Taylor has brewed at Goose Island since 2007, and to this point the merger hasn't been what he feared.
"When it happened, I was a little nervous," Taylor said ."What this has done has allowed us to brew one Bourbon County a week. It takes 36 hours to brew a batch of Bourbon County. You can imagine when we have 312 orders to fill, Bourbon County is going to suffer."
On the company's specialty beers, including an expansive program of sours, Taylor said, "I want to brew these beers non-stop. That's my baby. That's where I want to go with it."
Because of previous demand for the company's flagship beers, Taylor said Goose Island didn't even brew a batch of Bourbon County in 2011. Wolcott admitted that when it first happened, she was one of the more vocal opponents of the merger.
"We got a lot of push back, people saying 'Oh no', but it actually worked out fine," said Wolcott. "Even if you walk into the brewery it looks and feels exactly the same except there's a few more safety lines on the floor [laughs], so you don't run into a forklift or something."
Goose Island first brewed Bourbon County in 1992 and was the first brewery to age beer in used liquor barrels. Everyone has since jumped on board, but Wolcott stresses that the Chicago brewery has had the time to perfect it.
"We've gotten to make more awesome beer," said Wolcott. "I wouldn't say our beer has gotten better, because it's stayed the same as it always was. But now we have the ability to make a lot more of it."
Taylor said Anheuser Busch brewers have been hands off but offer advice when solicited. He said he has a ton of respect for the knowledge AB brewers bring.
"As a brewer, not much has changed," said Taylor. "I get a lot of Twitter and Facebook stuff, and I tell them, 'I was brewing your beer in 2007. I'm brewing your beer in 2013."
Goose Island has some 4,000 barrels in stock for various aging projects. More specialty beer is expected to reach the east coast in the coming months.