Mass-produced beer? You’re soaking in it—and sometimes, as this foamy exposé relates, under the guise of a trendy indie label.
Every hipster worthy of his chest-length beard may be a connoisseur of artisanal beer these days, but that wasn’t always the case. Just a few decades ago, apart from homebrew wizards who made grog in their basements, the ordinary stuff of American consumption was watery, sudsy, corporate lager. Then came the pioneering heroes, foremost among them John and Greg Hall’s Goose Island brewpub, a well-kept Chicago secret much beloved of drinkers. Goose Island innovated constantly, particularly by aging its brew in whiskey barrels, a technique that soon, as Chicago Tribune beer maven Noel writes, “became a necessity for any ambitious brewery.” Goose Island plied a lonely trade for a time; as the author notes, “the only craft brands with velocity in the city were Sam Adams Boston Lager…and Pete’s Wicked Ale.” Even there, the most popular of Goose Island’s many experiments was a blonde ale that was as close as it came to brewing a mass-produced beer. There’s portent there, and in Goose Island’s later production of a pilsner that was even closer to store-bought stuff, for when Anheuser-Busch came calling, the owners were only too glad to sell out, and to “the company that had spent decades thwarting the American beer industry with confusion, trickery, and dullness.” That big companies swallow up the little innovators is a standard plank in corporate capitalism, and Noel’s offended sensibility can be a little heavy-handed at times. However, Goose Island may prove an outlier, for, as the author also notes, whereas when Goose Island began, craft beers and their makers were rare, now there are northward of 2,500 breweries in the U.S., so that “after decades of Big Beer’s bland dominance, American beer is rife with choice.”
Fans of good beer will enjoy Noel’s explorations, which make for a useful cautionary tale as well.