Good Beer Hunting

Grit & Grain — Chapter 6 — "A Standard in the Industry"

One of the things I've enjoyed about working with Goose Island over the years is watching the team change, grow, and develop — some brewers, wiser and more experienced than most, graduate to start up their own operations around Chicago and beyond, and new talent comes in the other side, wide-eyed and enthusiastic, ready to hustle and learn. Because at Goose Island, when you join on as a brewer you start in the barrel program. 

It's no secret that Goose Island experienced a diaspora of talent after the sale to AB-Inbev. For most of those brewers, plans were already long in the making — the sale just served as a worthy moment to pull the trigger on those dreams. Others gradually moved on to roles in other Chicagoland breweries who were badly in need of experienced production experience and had grown to the point where they could afford to bring it on. Still others stayed on at Goose Island, cautiously optimistic that the brewery's best days still lay ahead. 

The 2015 brewing team at Goose Island is a mix of old-school and new blood, working together to build the largest barrel-aging program in the country — while some of them can't believe they get to work on these beers daily, others are jumping on the long-awaited chance to elevate the entire process. And at the helm of that program are people like Mike Seigel, the Innovation Manager we sat down with on the podcast last year just prior to their Black Friday BCS release. He's flanked by recently-promoted brewmaster Jared Jankoski from New Glarus, a formidable personality on the brewing floor with one of the driest senses of humor you'll find — like, it's almost uncomfortable when you realize he doesn't even care if you got the joke.

Some of the difficulties in brewing Bourbon County Stout still hold true — at its core is an intense amount of grain, requiring multiple mashes to fill up a fermenter just half way. Filling it any higher than that is impossible with such a robust fermentation — it needs all the head space it can get. And while they're always looking for ways to make the process easier and more efficient, the constraints of the brewery structure itself still force a lot of inefficient, back-breaking labor with all those grain sacks even as a giant LCD screen hanging over the mezzanine visualizes the automated brewhouse and transfer operations happening below. 

The biggest shift in the BCS process is the tankering between the Fulton St. brewery and the 150,000 sg ft. barrel warehouse over on Sacramento. Splitting these operations make it necessary to transfer the finished beer into a tanker truck and brite tanks on the other side before it makes it's way into the barrels. On a busy brew day, this is a never-ending process requiring a ton of coordination and quality control between the growing teams — something familiar to any brewery that's split its barrel operation up between multiple locations. 

One thing you'll find if you talk to people like Mike, Jared, and the rest of the brewing team is an immense amount of pressure to get things right. Not only has the program grown, but it's come to represent the entire brand as a specialty flagship of sorts. Few breweries have become known for a beer as much as Goose Island has for Bourbon County Stout - that unlikely "Batch 1000" who's legacy they now carry. And the leadership necessary to guide a young team is well in place to ensure its success. 

A couple weeks ago, I joined the Goose team in presenting the documentary series to the AB-Inbev High-End team headquartered in New York. It was a fascinating experience sharing something so emotionally driven with a team tasked with creating the world's most valuable and fastest-growing brands. In my past experience working with huge companies like Nike, Samsung, HP and others, I know it's scenarios like this that typically create misunderstandings between different business units — the gulf between priorities being about as wide as it gets. But instead of watching a conversation turn tense, I witnessed a team from a small brewery in Chicago answering big, difficult questions about their future with confidence and poise, explaining the meaning of a beer like BCS, the context it exists in, and the future that the Goose teams envisions for the beer, which weirdly includes barrel stave adirondack chairs if Jankoski has his way. 

Was that uncomfortable, Jared?

Helluva night. 

Collab by Michael Kiser
+ Goose Island