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.

Happy Anniversary, Wicked Weed

One year ago today, I was casting about for the end of my book. I had the beginning. I had the middle. But I didn't quite have the end. 

Then, to quote myself (as you'll see below): Wicked Weed Brewing happened.

You wouldn't think a story beginning with John Hall launching a brewpub in Chicago in 1988 as a second career would wind up with the sale of a North Carolina brewery in 2017 to the world's largest beer company. But it does, because Goose Island tells a story much bigger than its own. Goose Island tells the story of craft beer — innovation, struggle, wild success and then a complicated crossroad.

The way I chose to tell that story was through the lens of Goose Island and Anheuser-Busch. The first half of "Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business" is the story of Goose Island's rise, and its role as one of craft beer's great innovators. It also delves into Anheuser-Busch's difficult relationship with craft beer through the 1990s.

The mid-way point of the book is Goose Island's sale to Anheuser-Busch in 2011, which launched craft beer into a frenzied era of mergers and acquisitions, cries of "sell out" and questions of what it means to be an independently-owned business and to be "craft." Goose Island — the first of what wound up being 10 brewery acquisitions for Anheuser-Busch — was one of the more contentious sales. The last of those 10 wound up being just as contentious: the sale of Wicked Weed.

Announced one year ago Thursday, the deal sparked a new and fierce round of handwringing. It also provided a springboard into the final chapter of the book, which both ties off Goose Island's story and examines how craft beer went from unlikely underdog to grappling with the messiness of the industry's maturation. 

Here's the beginning of that chapter:*

In the spring of 2017, six months to the day after announcing its ninth American craft brewery acquisition — Houston’s Karbach Brewing — Anheuser-Busch announced its tenth American craft brewery acquisition. The Karbach sale had caused only a minor stir. Houston was a relatively undeveloped craft beer market, and though popular locally, Karbach had little broader resonance. The world seemingly had made peace with Anheuser-Busch’s push into craft beer. It was what it was. And it was apparently just about finished. Leadership insisted that it was time to stop buying, time to start executing.

“There’s a limit to how many people I can actually manage and collaborate with,” Felipe Szpigel, president of the High End, told Beer Marketer’s Insights that January. “I’m not saying that we’re not going to have any deal, but we’re pretty much good.”

Four months later, Wicked Weed Brewing happened.

Launched barely four years earlier in the craft beer hotbed of Asheville, North Carolina, Wicked Weed embraced two of the industry’s sizzling trends: robust IPAs and tart, funky wild ales. Two handsome blond brothers, Walt and Luke Dickinson, started the brewery with family friend Ryan Guthy and Guthy’s parents, who had made a fortune selling skin care products via infomercial. The Dickinson brothers were the face of the company, but the Guthys were reported to be majority owners, which allowed Wicked Weed to open with a craft beer bang: seven thousand square feet and seventeen draft handles in the heart of downtown Asheville, next to the coolest rock club in town. It was such a slick start-up that some locals presumed it was part of an existing chain. In less than four years, Wicked Weed opened three more spaces — a taproom dedicated to sour beers, a barrel-aging facility, and a fifty-barrel production brewery. By 2017, it was on pace to produce forty thousand barrels of beer — a whopping 471 percent growth from just two years earlier.

Named for a legendary (and possibly misattributed) quote from King Henry VIII — the hop plant is a “wicked and pernicious weed” — Wicked Weed was equal parts outstanding beer and outstanding branding. The Dickinsons looked the part, they had national buzz, and they collaborated with the industry’s most credible brewers. People liked Wicked Weed because Wicked Weed had the unique ability to make people care — in the beer, in the brand, and in the ethos. And that made its sale to Anheuser-Busch an exacting punch to the gut. It was Goose Island and Elysian all over again. It was a reminder that Big Beer would never stop. It forever had the ability to thrust itself into the heart of craft beer.

Texas’s Jester King Brewery — which specialized in the same sort of sour and wild ales as Wicked Weed — spoke for a stunned industry when it issued a statement hours after the announcement:

This has been a difficult day for us. The news that our great friend Wicked Weed Brewing was acquired by AB In-Bev came as quite a shock. As you might guess, we've been getting a lot of e-mails, media inquiries, and online questions about what we think and what it means for Jester King. 

It's no secret that Wicked Weed has been one of our closest friends in the beer industry. Regardless of what has transpired, we'll always consider the people of Wicked Weed friends, and want the best for them and their families. 

With that said, we have some core principles that define who we are as a brewery, and those principles must not be compromised. One of our core principles is that we do not sell beer from AB In-Bev or its affiliates. We've chosen this stance, not because of the quality of the beer, but because a portion of the money made off of selling it is used to oppose the interests of craft brewers. In Texas, large brewers (and their distributors) routinely oppose law changes that would help small, independent brewers. We choose not to support these large brewers because of their political stances, and in some cases, their economic practices as well. 

Because of this core principle, it pains us to say that we won't be carrying Wicked Weed anymore at Jester King. We think Wicked Weed beer is some of the best in the world. Their talent, techniques, and patience produces some of the most beautiful beer we've ever tasted. That, combined with their great friendship, is what makes this decision so tough for us. But like we said, our core values must be paramount at the end of the day. 

We wish Wicked Weed the best, will deeply miss having their beer at Jester King and working with them on collaborations, and expect them to continue to make fantastic beer. Like we mentioned, they'll always have our friendship and we look forward to the next time we can share a beer together.

The founder of Denver’s Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales, James Howat, followed by saying on his brewery’s website that he was “shocked” by the sale. “We truly believe that ABInBev intends to systematically destroy American craft beer as we know it,” he wrote.

Howat had two collaboration beers with Wicked Weed in process — one at his brewery and one aging in Asheville. He announced that he would no longer lend his brewery’s name to the beer at Wicked Weed, and the one in Denver would be blended into existing beers. Also, Howat said, he would not participate in Wicked Weed’s annual sour and wild beer festival, the Wicked Weed Funkatorium Invitational, scheduled in Asheville two months later.

And on it went. The North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild announced that it was “disheartened to hear of the sale.” A former Wicked Weed employee bought the URL www.wickedweedsoldout.com to post a nine hundred-word screed in which he called Wicked Weed’s founders sellouts three separate times. Bars and beer stores said they were done with the brewery, including several in Denver, where Wicked Weed had begun distributing to marked excitement just ten months earlier. A dozen bars said they would tap their remaining kegs and then be done, just as they had already cut ties with the rest of Anheuser-Busch’s craft portfolio. Even a bar owner in Switzerland aired his disgust, discounting his remaining Wicked Weed bottles to a dollar each. “We will take a loss, but we can absolutely no longer stand behind their products, and we will be happy when we have rid our coolers of their negative spirit,” he wrote, in German, on Facebook.

With its rapid growth and extraordinarily deep financing, Wicked Weed did not need to sell, the Dickinson brothers insisted after the sale. But they were ambitious. And while growing into a dominant regional brand seemed attainable — especially after expanding to eight states and forty thousand barrels of production — Anheuser-Busch offered limitless opportunity. Seeds of the sale were planted at the Great American Beer Festival in 2013, when Felipe Szpigel stopped by Wicked Weed’s table. He liked what he tasted. He traveled to Asheville to look around and to chat with the founders. When the Dickinsons and Guthys began considering a sale in late 2016 to finance growth while reducing their own risk, they already knew Szpigel. Within weeks, the sides were doing due diligence.

For Anheuser-Busch, Wicked Weed was a seamless fit both geographically (finally — a craft presence in the Southeast) and within its portfolio; after buying IPAs, stouts, and lagers, now it had sour and wild ales. The turning point for the Dickinson brothers was a visit to Goose Island the previous fall. They wanted to see life at an Anheuser-Busch acquisition, and the High End urged them to visit Chicago. The Dickinsons spent a day at the brewery, the barrel warehouse, and the taproom.

They liked the beer. They liked the culture. They were impressed by the Fulton Street taproom; it seemed more authentically “craft” than taprooms they’d visited from actual independently owned breweries. They liked that it was built after Anheuser-Busch bought the company. The world’s largest beer company wasn’t afraid to invest in its acquisitions.

The day the sale was announced, as scorn rained down, Szpigel told media that Wicked Weed was “redefining what sophistication in beer can mean,” and that sour ales would be key to the next phase of the High End’s development. The Dickinson brothers, meanwhile, handled their repudiation with relative class — and the hope that none of it would eventually matter.

“I in no way have any issue with the statements they put out,” Walt Dickinson said of Jester King and Black Project, a day after the sale was announced. “They were very respectful and all they did was distance themselves from us from a professional standpoint because of the partner we decided to align with. They have done absolutely nothing wrong and I fully support those statements and understand their reasoning for them. In the end, I hope one day we can break down some of these barriers and we can get back to just looking at beer for what it is, and look at quality instead of who is the subsidiary of who.”

Yet in the coming days, almost every brewery planning to pour beer at the Funkatorium Invitational withdrew. Some did so quite gladly: “They’ve always rubbed me the wrong way, particularly Walt, because he introduces himself to me every time and says, every time, ‘Pleasure to meet you, I’m a big fan of your beers,’” Brad Clark, the founder of Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery in Athens, Ohio, told the Good Beer Hunting website. “A total lack of relevance and compassion and being present.”

The day after the sale was announced, Wicked Weed announced that the festival would go on as planned. But a week later, after 80 percent of scheduled breweries dropped out, it had no choice but to cancel the Funkatorium Invitational. It pledged to stage a new event two months later that never happened.

Again and again, the Dickinsons offered up the standard Anheuser-Busch defense: It’s just beer! Can’t we all just get along? The sooner everyone started thinking about the beer in the glass — rather than how it got in the glass — the better. The world’s largest beer company was counting on it.

When I began working on this book six years ago, at a time that Anheuser-Busch had still only acquired one craft brewery — Goose Island — I had no idea where the story would lead. Hell, Wicked Weed hadn't even brewed its first beer yet. Yet, in 2018, here we are, staring at an industry transformed. 

 The last chapter

The last chapter

*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.

The back cover

I tried to get a Famous Actor. 

I knew someone who knew the Famous Actor’s brother, and the brother very kindly agreed to get my book to the Famous Actor. Alas, the Famous Actor — as famous actors probably often are — was busy traveling for a couple of months with his Famous Actress Wife. It didn’t work out.

I tried to get Michael Lewis (whose narrative nonfiction is an inspiration) and Michael Pollan (whose progressive approach to food writing I hope to echo at least in spirit). But both authors maintain firm “no blurb” policies, and it only makes sense. If Lewis and Pollan agreed to lend their names for back-cover quotes on strangers’ books, they’d have no time for anything else.

Otherwise, I was fortunate. Wrangling quotes for the back cover of a book — blurbs, as they’re called — is a wrinkle of book writing that strays far from what inspired the project. It's more akin to marketing. But it becomes hugely necessary, an orgy of praise to hopefully gleam a little brighter in a torrent of 21st century distractions.

The obvious place to start for "Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out" was Ray Daniels. He’s been prominent in the beer industry for more than 20 years, as a journalist, an author (“Designing Great Beers” is on countless brewery shelves), at the Brewers Association and most prominently, as founder of the Cicerone Certification Program. (I profiled Ray for the Chicago Tribune in 2010.) He’s also been a Goose Island customer since the brewery opened, and knows its story as well as anyone. I’ve been told that Ray has declined to blurb books that don't impress him. Fortunately he agreed with mine.

“Josh Noel deftly details the facts and passions surrounding one of the most contentious defections in craft beer history. Behind it, he shows us the dramatic story of two men — father and son — whose journey from struggling start-up to global beer brand changed both beer menus and industry loyalties in ways that will be talked about for decades to come.”

A prominent beer writer seemed necessary — someone respected in the industry and who has written books of his or her own. I considered several and settled on Jeff Alworth, who operates one of the smartest beer blogs out there.

“Josh Noel has accomplished the very rare trick of telling a fascinating story that reveals the larger world it inhabits — in this case, how craft beer went from underdog to unlikely sensation. This is an essential book for anyone interested in beer, and also a really fun read.”

Just as important was an author whose name would resonate beyond beer folk. I’ve said all along that I want this book to appeal to anyone who enjoys the broader story — sort of how "Seabiscuit" succeeded well beyond the horse crowd. I simultaneously reached out to three authors who might help: Lewis, Pollan and Jonathan Eig. Lewis and Pollan didn’t work out, but Eig, fortunately, did.

Eig, a former newspaper and magazine writer now full-time book writing, initially promised nothing. I contacted him through Twitter, and he said I should send the book. If he could help out, he said, he would — the implication being that if the book was crap, he'd have nothing to offer. Of course, that was what I wanted to hear; any praise should be earned. Eig responded several weeks later, very encouraging and complimentary. His enthusiasm and prominence — the man has been on both The Daily Show and Fresh Air for god's sake! — provided what became our lead blurb.

“If you care about great beer and great storytelling, this book is essential reading. Josh Noel gives us a fresh look at a fascinating business, laced with new details, sharply drawn characters, and high stakes. Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out is deeply reported and always a delight to read.”

I also wanted someone seemingly misplaced — a sense of what's that person doing here? — for even more crossover appeal. The Famous Actor would have been a coup. But so would, say, a sitting governor. John Hickenlooper is the governor of Colorado and a founding — albeit now former — owner of Denver's Wynkoop Brewing. I’d interviewed Hickenlooper for the book as an early contemporary of John Hall who attended the same industry conferences back in the late 1980s, when there were just a few hundred breweries in the U.S. The governor was generous with his time and quite likable during our 15 minute chat. A year later, book finished, I reached back out. Though his press secretary told me to send the book, I wasn’t optimistic that Hickenlooper would actually have time to read it or lend his name for an endorsement. But behold — he did! And now he’s apparently mulling a vice presidential bid in 2020. If it actually happens, we might need to boost Hickenlooper to the top spot. (Sorry Jonathan.)

“A thorough and compelling look at craft beer’s wild history and complicated future. As an early brewpub sibling to Goose Island, I can easily say there’s a detailed story here worth digging into.”

Of course, I also needed some credibility from within craft beer itself. Two elder statesmen immediately came to mind: Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewing, and Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing. (I also queried a third prominent brewmaster, but he declined, citing intense negative feelings about Goose Island since its sale.) Figuring we’d only use one of Calagione and Grossman, I asked any and everyone in the industry which name they thought resonated more. The answers were evenly split; Calagione is a longtime rabble rouser who has vociferously warned against Big Beer’s incursion into craft beer, he’s hosted a cable television show and was profiled in 2008 in The New Yorker as the face of the then-burgeoning industry. Grossman, meanwhile, is arguably the single most influential person in the history of craft beer, responsible for both the industry’s most iconic brewery and its most influential beer. (Both have obviously fallen in favor in recent years, but still ... it's Sierra Nevada!) But the question answered itself; Grossman’s assistant said the book never showed up while Calagione eagerly devoured his copy, finishing it on a flight to Dallas.

The blurb he offered was warm and enthusiastic, and the email accompanying it even more so. He explained how he shared "Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out" with a newly-hired Dogfish executive whose experience was outside the beer industry: “Your book was a perfect read for him in his first month of onboarding because it makes the history of the business of craft brewing understandable and exciting. You did a great job dovetailing the arc of our industry’s evolution with the story of Goose Island and its major players.” Calagione included a photo of page 177, in which I wrote that Big Beer and craft beer had largely been parallel lines for 30 years, but with the Goose Island sale, “the lines had intersected.” He agreed that it had been a crucial junction, calling the sale, “the moment when shit starting getting real in terms of the inter-relations between the worlds of craft and big beer.” It was a thrill to hear I’d gotten it right from one of the industry’s foremost voices. Calagione's blurb distilled his thoughts into a brisk two sentences.

“A well-researched and well-written book about the most exciting and dynamic era in America’s commercial beer history since Prohibition. I couldn’t put it down and I shared it with a coworker as soon as I finished reading it.”

The last blurb, funny enough, wasn’t one I sought out. An advance copy of my book had found its way to the cofounder of Brooklyn Brewery, Steve Hindy, who sent a complimentary email. Hindy, a former journalist, had written his own accounting of craft beer’s rise, “The Craft Beer Revolution,” which I consulted while reporting my book. Brewery founder? Check. Author? Check. Liked my book? Check. I asked Hindy if he might consider a blurb. He came back with what might be my favorite of them all.

“Josh Noel tells the story of Goose Island founder John Hall and his son, Greg, with sympathy and understanding, leaving the reader to decide if it is a triumph for craft brewers, a tragedy for the craft movement, or both.”

Hindy had unknowingly drilled into what came to seem to me as the essence of the book during six years of writing and reporting. Goose Island’s sale to Anheuser-Busch marked the beginning of a new era in craft beer. With that sale came a question: Had craft beer won or had craft beer lost? I raise the question implicitly throughout the book, and explicitly once or twice; of course, the answer depends on who you ask.

I appreciated Hindy’s suggestion that I didn’t draw a conclusion for the reader. With "Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out," I want to raise more questions than answers. With six people generously sharing their time and thoughts, I'm hopefully closer to doing that.

 The back cover

The back cover

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."

menu front long.jpg

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."

beer list top.jpg

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.

beer list bottom 1.jpg
beer list bottom 2.jpg

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:

a few facts about beer.jpg

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."

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