Josh Noel

Beer, travel, other things.

Josh Noel is the author of "Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business" and writes about travel and beer for the Chicago Tribune.

A 25-year-old (or so) Goose Island menu

All sorts of history emerged as I reported Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out. Among it was this menu, provided by the indispensable Randy Mosher, from Goose Island's brewpub circa the early/mid 1990s.

Step into the craft beer time machine and a house salad costs a mere $2.50. Nachos come with "Goose Island's own salsa of chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and cilantro." And the hamburger ($5.95 then; $16 now) is "Pure Angus beef topped with your choice of cheese (Wisconsin cheddar, blue, Swiss, jalapeño, jack or American), bacon, mushrooms, grilled onions and anything else you can think of, all on an onion roll."

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Most interesting, of course, is the beer. The menu features three core year-round beers: Golden Goose Pilsner, which had been a brewpub mainstay since opening in 1988; Honker's Ale, the only 1988 original that has endured throughout Goose Island's 30-year history (though the fading popularity of the easy drinking, malt forward style leaves it at the periphery these days); and Tanzen Gans Kolsch, likely one of the earliest examples of the kolsch style made by an American craft brewer.

The Brewmaster's Specials included another 19 beers that rotated seasonally, including a heretofore rarity in Chicago called IPA ("very strong, very bitter, very pale"). It was such a wildly different era that it wasn't IPA described on the menu as "hoppy" — that designation was saved for, of all things, Honker's Ale: "It has all the hallmarks of a great British bitter: dry, fruity, hoppy, with slightly lower carbonation, as is traditional."

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In addition to what is quite possibly the earliest example of an IPA made in Chicago, PMD Mild Ale is also of note among the Brewmaster's Specials. That beer provided one of my favorite anecdotes in the book. Greg Hall, Goose Island's longtime brewmaster (and the son of brewery founder John Hall), faced an endless battle when it came to educating customers. Here's an excerpt* from the book that explains the battle:

Greg used PMD Mild Ale as a means to educate or, as he put it, “fuck with people.” The people, in this case, were 1990s beer drinkers. Anheuser-Busch and Miller’s combined share of the U.S. beer market was 65 percent, which led many customers to issue a simple and mindless request when ordering at the bar: “I'll have your lightest beer.” Greg would inevitably respond with a frothy, chestnut brown pint of PMD Mild. He relished the quizzical looks that followed.

“I don’t want this, I want your lightest beer,” the customer would say.

“You want the lightest-colored beer, the lowest alcohol, or the fewest calories?” Greg would ask.

The fucking with was on.

“Fewest calories,” was the most common answer.

“That’s what I gave you.”

“But this is dark.”

“Do you want a low-calorie beer that’s easy to drink?”

“No, I want a light beer.”

And there it was, distilled into one sentence: the battle that Goose Island and the nation’s band of craft brewers — now up to nearly 400 — faced during the early 1990s. Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors had zapped the American understanding of beer into one meaningless word: light. Or worse, lite.

Light beer was more than the absence of color; it was a lack of aroma, taste, and flavor, a reduction of the American palate to the bland center of nothingness. It was a mindless, meaningless handle, and everything that every upstart brewery fought. Greg must have had the conversation a thousand times, and pissed off 998 people along the way. But he didn’t care. In 1992 PMD Mild Ale scored a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in the English Brown Ale category. The people who needed to get it got it.

Goose Island fought such battles daily. Most of its efforts came not with words, but with radical choice for 1990s beer drinkers.

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It was a time that a brewpub menu needed to speak to customers in the most basic language: "Goose Island is a 'brewpub,' that is, a small brewery which brews beer principally for consumption on premises," reads the back cover. "Each week the finest lagers and ales are produced in time honored, handcrafted tradition, served fresh to you." Also, check out "A Few Facts About Beer," from an inside flap:

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Goose Island's Clybourn Avenue location is a wholly different operation these days. It's a sleek slice of the world's largest beer company — marketing and experience, basically, as Anheuser-Busch pushes into American craft beer. Back then, however, the Goose Island pub was innovation, alternative and choice. It was the antidote to Anheuser-Busch. It was another era in beer where seemingly anything was in play — even a seven-ounce pour for a buck.

 * Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business  to be published June 1, 2018 by Chicago Review Press. Excerpt © 2017 Josh Noel.

*Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business to be published June 1, 2018 by Chicago Review Press. Excerpt © 2017 Josh Noel.

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John Reading

John Hall, founder of Goose Island Beer Co., on the porch behind his Chicago townhouse on a warm September afternoon, reading a draft of "Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out" for the first time, for fact checking purposes.

His verdict? "Good."