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.

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. (I also texted Anthony Bourdain — I'd never met him, but a colleague gave me his number — thinking he might be thinking a bit more critically minded about beer and the beer industry after his legendary interview on the subject. Alas, apparently not; he didn't write back.)

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