Founder of Goose Island Beer Company talks brewing up creative environments
Sitting across from John Hall at the American Packaging Summit, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe. Being a native Chicagoan, I fondly remember Hall’s Goose Island Brewery when it was just a local brewpub in a sketchy part of town and have watched the brand grow into the household name it is today.
As the film crew readies the equipment, Hall and I casually chat about this evening’s Chicago Blackhawks’ game, his home in Chicago and his family. Hall might have become a celebrated name in beer history, but at his core, he’s still a local guy who loves beer and innovation.
History of Innovation
Prior to founding Goose Island Brewery and the subsequent Goose Island Beer Company brand, Hall was a vice president at the paper packaging and paperboard manufacturer Container Corporation of America. There, Hall explains, he was able to work with the innovation group to see how a commitment to experimentation could pay off.
Perhaps that’s what primed him to make his next career move: Trading in more than two decades at Container Corporation of America to start a new company in an emerging market. “I was probably a little overconfident, if anything but I had done a lot of things and managed some things so I felt pretty confident of what I could do,” Hall explains. “And this was in the mid-80s, just when so many things were happening.”
One of these market trends was the explosion in gourmet food and beverage, especially on the West Coast. “This is when Starbucks just got started,” Hall continues. “This is when wine was exploding with all the varietals and everything like that. Ethnic foods were just starting [to go mainstream].”
The final push came in the form of an article in a Delta inflight magazine. “I read this magazine article about small little breweries on the West Coast,” Hall recalls. “[That started me thinking about my] time in Europe. In the back of my mind, I always wondered why we didn’t have the variety of beers available here in the States that you saw in Europe.”
But Hall would face more than a continental divide that separates beer cultures, his choice to start his business close to home would put his startup in between two great American beer cities—Milwaukee and St. Louis, birthplace of Miller and home to Anheuser-Busch respectively.
Home and family
“My whole goal was being Chicago’s beer,” says Hall. “I had no dream whatsoever of really making beer outside of Chicago. I thought Chicago is a big city, and if I could get 2% to 5% of the share of market of Chicago, then why shouldn’t I? Think of all the other things that Chicagoans take great pride in, why shouldn’t we have a beer?”
And taking to heart the saying that home is where the family is, Hall brought in family to birth this home town brew. Beaming with fatherly pride, Hall tells the story of Goose Island’s famed brewmaster Greg Hall. A recent college graduate, who thought he hit the jackpot when Dad announced that he was going to quit his corporate job to found a beer company, Greg didn’t see the opportunity as a chance to coast into a life of ease and partying. Instead, Greg attended the 140-year-old Siebel Institute of Technology to formally study the trade and committed himself to making innovative beers in the Midwest.
With both son and father’s visions aligned, the duo began to bring the complexity and sophistication of European beers to a brewpub located minutes away from Chicago Housing Authority’s Cabrini-Green Homes. The brewpub was introducing Chicagoans to a variety of beer styles from England, Germany and Belgium, while the neighboring housing project was becoming famous as the gang-ridden backdrop for the horror movie, Candyman.
Innovation crushes challenges
Two beer-brewing newbies, a pub located in a neighborhood specifically chosen for its ability to strike fear in the movie-going public and a larger city market that was unfamiliar with higher end European beer styles doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. But succeed they did.
Anheuser-Busch bought the beer company for $33.8 million in 2011 and has brought Goose Island to beer aficionados worldwide. “Two years after, AB purchased Goose Island, they took us national,” Hall recalls. “Now we’re also in several countries in Europe, China and soon to be in several places in South America.”
As Goose Island’s founding father, in more ways than one, Hall brought a plethora of business skills honed through his long successful tenure at Container Corporation working in a variety of sales, marketing and business management roles. The most valuable take-away from Hall’s time at Container Corporation, though, was an appreciation of innovation.
Throughout his roles at Container Corporation, Hall always kept strong ties with the company’s innovation department. So he was open-minded when the young Greg Hall came into the company ripe with ideas for product innovation.
Innovations that often started with a look back. In 1992, Goose Island introduced American consumers to bourbon-aged beer. While some sources credit Goose Island with pioneering the process, which begins with first-use bourbon barrels, Hall says the credit belongs both to his son, Greg, and his European counterparts.
“Before stainless steel and plastics, beer was made in wood—wooden forgers or tanks and barrels,” Hall explains. “With cellulose, it’s not a very aseptic condition, so you’re going to have some residential yeast in there that’s going to really impact the flavor and character of the beer. Once brewers had the ability to not use wood and get away from cellulose, they really went to it whole hog. We took it back there when we first introduced Bourbon County Stout, but they were doing some of this in Belgium all along but that wasn’t really common here in America.”
A characteristic unique to the Chicago process is the extreme heat and cold that has residents wearing winter boots one day and shorts the next. Goose Island’s barrels are stored in a non-climate-controlled space that enables the temperature swings to contract and expand the wood, pulling the barrels’ whiskey character, developed over an average whiskey aging span of eight years, into the beer.
For the love of women
Goose Island continued its use of barrel-aged beers to create its sisters line of beers. Aged in wine barrels, these beers are created using both wild and domesticated yeast and fruit-forward recipes, and many serve as an homage to women loved and appreciated by the men of Goose Island.
Madame Rose, a crimson colored Belgian style brown ale with sour cherry, spice and wood notes, was created to honor a self-made female entrepreneur who overcame her circumstances. “Madame Rose was a stripper in Belgium,” Hall says. “She also worked in a brewery and ended up owning the brewery! And then there’s Matilda, who is named after a Tuscan countess who really funded the Orval Trappist Brewery or the Trappist Abbey that also makes a beer, which is an inspiration for the Matilda beer. Gillian was originally called Scully and is named after Gillian Anderson, who worked for Goose Island as a hostess back in 1988.
“We have a brewer who had severe pancreatic disease,” Hall continues. “He was in the hospital for six months and met a girl with terminal pancreatic cancer named Halia. He named the beer after her.”
But the beer with the backstory closest to Hall’s heart is Sofie. The sparkling Belgian Style Farmhouse Ale has a light, refreshing, creamy vanilla finish that Anheuser-Busch says will excite those fond of Champagne. Goose Island Beer Company states simply on its website, “Light and effervescent, we named it for our founder’s granddaughter Sofie.”
Sofie also exists as a reminder that although Goose Island Beer Co. is an international brand, it will always be one family’s legacy at its core.
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The three stripes of the Chicago Flag are still a prominent design element in Goose Island’s packaging. Instead of three white stripes representing the north-, south- and west-side neighborhoods, the necker sports three colored stripes that help consumers easily identify their favorite variety—even when the bottles are sitting in an ice-filled cooler.
Pulling on his packaging background, Hall knew that Goose Island could get the most profit margin expansion from both a product innovation and a packaging investment. This beer is aged in wine barrels and bottled to reflect that heritage.
The Goose Island logo has evolved along with the company. The original logo, Hall explains, was created to attract primarily male beer drinkers with a look reminiscent of an English pub. Hall knew the logo would need to have wider appeal, when Goose Island started bottling and distributing its beers on a larger scale. So, he sought a more modern and gender neutral look, as evidenced below.
Further evidence of its continuing strong ties to Chicago, Goose Island introduced 312 Urban Pale Ale and even created a holiday for it. The first 312 Day was March 12, 2014.
This interview is part of a two-part series with thought leaders in the beer industry. Our next installment with
Anheuser-Busch’s vice-president of marketing Jorn Socquet will be published in our next issue.