Josh Noel

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 taste of Goose Island at Taste of Chicago ... and a large helping of Anheuser-Busch

Taste of Chicago has long been a priority for Goose Island Beer Co.

All the way back in the mid 1990s, when Goose Island beer was just starting to show up on Chicago’s shelves and taps, brewery founder John Hall emphasized marketing and exposure for his brand.

It was a time that many iconoclastic brewery founders shunned the idea of — gasp — advertising to the masses because it ran counter to the notion of “indie cred.” John, however, prioritized it. He was a former white collar executive who saw no victory in staying small (something that would become quite clear in 2011).

Enter Taste of Chicago.

In Chapter 8 of “Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out,” I dive into the mechanics of a small, local craft brewery trying to compete with Chicago’s 1990s beer industry stalwarts — Bud, Miller, Sam Adams and Heineken among them. The effort required precise and novel sales efforts, which included plenty of education (“Fact!! Fresh beer is better!” read one sales sheet).

Goose Island’s plan also included — gasp again — a marketing budget. As I write in Chapter 8, Chicago’s iconic food fest played a key role:

John Hall budgeted more than $200,000 for radio ads, print ads, billboards, ads on the sides of city buses, and even a toll-free phone number (800-GOOSE-ME). He sponsored the only local sports teams he could afford: the minor-league baseball Kane County Cougars, forty miles west of the city, and the DePaul University men’s basketball team.

He spent thousands of dollars to pour beer at Chicago’s premier downtown summer festival, Taste of Chicago, where Goose Island got its name on the music stage. Goose Island bought Chicago Cubs season tickets so that John, Greg, or Bob could take their best customers to the occasional afternoon meeting at Wrigley Field. (It also helped Goose Island land Honker’s Ale and Summertime at a handful of craft and import kiosks around the ballpark.)

It’s 25 years later. Goose Island is still front and center at Taste of Chicago. But its presence serves a very different purpose.

Rather than a scrappy local company staking home field advantage, Goose Island now operates in the service of the nation’s largest beer company, Anheuser-Busch — the very Goliath it was trying to thwart back in the 90s with that $200,000 marketing budget.

And though no casual beer drinker is meant to see it, Goose Island’s Taste of Chicago sponsorship offers a prime example of how Anheuser-Busch uses its craft brewery acquisitions as tools for quiet dominance. Similar examples are undoubtedly unfolding in the other markets where Anheuser-Busch has bought craft breweries: New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Seattle among them.

Have a look at the menu fest-goers saw upon entering Taste of Chicago:

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That’s eight brands that cover several bases — macro beers (Bud, Bud Light, Michelob Ultra), craft beers (312 Urban Wheat Ale and Goose Island IPA), imports (Stella), cider (Virtue) and the burgeoning hard seltzer category (Bon & Viv). And they’re all owned by Anheuser-Busch.

Venture deeper into the fest, and Goose Island has an even larger presence — a variety of festival-friendly brews, some of which are made by Goose Island in Chicago (SPF Fruit Ale, 312 Dry-Hopped Wheat Ale) and others that are made by Anheuser-Busch (Next Coast IPA, Summertime) ...

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… plus two Virtue ciders and a fruity, low-cal thing called Mezzo Spritz launched earlier this year.

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We’re up to 17 brands crossing several genres and they’re all Anheuser-Busch products. Though Taste of Chicago cultivates a fairly impressive taste of Chicago that spans cuisines and neighborhoods, it does no such thing with the beer. None of Chicago’s nearly 200 breweries are represented beyond the sponsor.

The clearest evidence of Anheuser-Busch flexing its muscle, however, came at the next (and final) beer tent I saw.

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Here we have the festival’s lone Mexican import (Estrella Jalisco), a training wheels craft beer (Shock Top Lemon Shandy), two West Coast craft beer brands with national footprints (Elysian Space Dust and Golden Road Mango Cart) and a macro cider (Stella Artois Cidre).

And guess what? All owned by Anheuser-Busch!

It’s a clean sweep: 22 beer, cider and hard seltzer brands at Taste of Chicago.

All Anheuser-Busch. (Hello “illusion of choice!”)

And it’s all presumably thanks to that Goose Island sponsorship — a sponsorship that means something quite different than the brewery’s underdog story of 20 years ago.