Good Beer Hunting

Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking — Is Goose Island's Big Migration to the UK a Risky Flight?

It’s been a big year for Goose Island. Under the stewardship of AB InBev, which purchased the Chicago Brewery in 2011, it’s now one of the most recognizable and widespread beer brands in the country. A sharp rebrand, national TV commercials that blend craft messaging with top-notch production, and the upscaling of production at ABI’s facilities in Fort Collins, CO and Baldwinsville, NY have all contributed towards this sizable growth. 

However, the U.S. is not the only beer market where Goose is seeking a high volume market share. In the UK, where ABI’s traditional brands such as Stella Artois and Beck’s are stagnating, Goose is being championed as the brand that will potentially ensure its profits can continue to grow. You’ll now find Goose Island’s core beers in the UK’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, and on tap in hundreds of pubs and bars across the country. 

But Goose Island isn't just trying to win accounts and consumers by offering its premium products at appealing pricing in thousands of outlets. The brewery's also fighting to find the same relevance in the UK that won it the hearts and minds of Chicagoans for decades after its founding in 1988. Over the past few months it's been running a series of high-profile industry and consumer events in the UK, culminating with the news that it plans to open its own chain of bars, starting in London. This news is breaking just as AB announced that their UK craft brand, Camden Town Brewery, will be exporting to New York City. It's perhaps a new age where companies layer the craft zeitgeist on top of the import effect, and so on, back and forth, forever.

How serious is Goose about London? On Sept. 24, Goose Island was well into the second day of its 312 Block Party in Chicago. It was also holding a second Block Party in a market it was looking to expand into, but it wasn’t NYC, L.A. or Boston—it was in London. For the event, Goose hired out Red Market, a lavish events space on Old Street, at the heart of East London’s food and drink scene. 

It charged £10 ($12.50) a ticket and, once inside, attendees found multiple bars pouring Goose Island beers, including rarities such as Bourbon County and Juliet. There was food from London’s hottest street food trucks and plenty of live music. This included a headline slot from the band Everything Everything, tickets for whom usually command over three times the day's price of admission. 

This wasn’t just a party—it was a statement of intent. Goose Island’s banner flew high above London that weekend and it showed that they were here and that they meant business. 

Fast forward a couple of months and Goose is throwing another party, only this time it’s industry-only. The gathered bloggers and press are here for a preview of Bourbon County’s 2016 vintage, two days ahead of its Black Friday release. Here in the UK, that consisted of just 100 bottles that were sold through a single, independent specialist retailer.

We were treated to samples from the core range before sitting down to watch a few episodes of Grit & Grain, the miniseries that tells the story of Bourbon County, from conception to glass. We were served the 2015 and 2016 vintages alongside each other, while brewer Tim Faith and UK Brand Ambassador Joshua Smith answered questions from the crowd.

They were obliged to open up about last year’s issues with contamination and speak frankly about the decision to pasteurize this year’s release. But I was far more interested in finding out the significance in an exercise that, on the surface, appeared to be a masterclass in creating the idea of relative scarcity. 

“One hundred bottles is all we were allocated,” Smith said, speaking to me after the press launch. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s no queue. It’s not the same as in the U.S. where, on Black Friday, everyone gets the day off. I’ve got no expectations.”

Smith was first introduced to Bourbon County when working at the White Hart, a South London pub that stocked Goose Island way before AB InBev took over. (The beer has been imported to the UK since 2002.) He began working for Goose Island 12 months ago. 

“[Bourbon County] showed me what beer could be and I fell in love with it after that," Smith told me. "So being able to bring Bourbon County to the UK—I do that with a lot of nostalgia.”

For Faith, who has worked for Goose Island for three years, this was an opportunity to experience what inspired founder John Hall first hand. 

“I feel like our roots are ultimately based here. John Hall created our beers to mirror the image of English beer,” Faith said. “To have this travel opportunity and really meet people that are based in an entirely different country in a city as large and uniquely culturally different as Chicago, it’s just fucking awesome.”

As awesome as it was for Faith, I was still no closer to finding out how Goose Island would find the relevance in the UK market that they were so obviously seeking. As Faith himself points out, London is “uniquely culturally different” to Chicago. So I headed down to Clapton Craft, the retailer who was hosting the launch to find out if anyone would actually show up. 

Here in the UK (much like in the U.S.), the Black Friday launch made national press, featured in newspapers such as The Independent and magazines such as Timeout. The latter even had a camera crew there on the morning of the launch, offering the 30 or so folks in line lavish sums of cash in exchange for the bottles being sold for £19 each ($24). No one bit.

People had begun standing in line since 8:30am to secure their two-bottle allocation. It wasn’t quite the camping overnight that the U.S. launch generates, but people definitely showed up. For Clapton Craft co-founder Tom McKim, whose business now consists of four stores in London, hosting the launch wasn’t an easy decision. For a small, craft beer focused retailer, this could be considered by the beer geek community as working with the enemy. 

He didn’t appear to be regretting it when he arrived to open his Kentish Town branch with customers already lining up outside, however.

“Now that we have such a wealth of amazing domestic beer and better access to imports it's easy to forget what it was like even 5 or 6 years ago,” McKim told me. “Even though, as a business, we're focussed primarily on showcasing the best local and UK beer, we're still happy to stock the classics—for that reason, we're pleased to be able to work with Goose.”

I asked McKim if the retail price of Goose Island stacks up favorably against the local beer that he also stocks. 

“The core range—IPA, 312, Honkers—costs about the same as beers from Beavertown or Fourpure here in London,” he said. "The most important things for us are quality and value for money, so the decision to stock basically comes down to whether it's a really good beer or not.”

It took just a little over two hours for all 100 bottles to sell after the store opened at 11am.

Shortly after Black Friday, Goose Island was in the news once again. The news broke that the brewery was just weeks away from opening its first London pub. Without the hindrance of the three-tier system, breweries in the UK are allowed to own their own bars. Traditional breweries such as Fuller’s and Greene King have vast estates of public houses. Younger businesses such as BrewDog are also investing heavily in opening a national chain of bars, with 31 sites in their UK portfolio alone. And Heineken just announced the purchase of the Punch Tavern chain. For many craft drinkers here, it's a disturbing new trend with little barrier to dominance. 

Goose Island looks to be taking advantage of this market too, with its first “Vintage Ale House” opening in Balham, South London today (Dec. 16). A second London site, potentially a brewpub, is also in development, as well as another in Brussels, Belgium.

Toby Cowan formerly worked for London’s Young’s Brewery, managing 12 of its pubs across the capital. He’s now working for AB InBev as its Head of Brand Experience for Europe, and will be spearheading Goose’s Vintage Ale House brand. 

“The concept will focus on beer and food pairing,” Cowan says. “We are using local suppliers & creating a menu inspired by Chicago but with a UK twist. We plan to be stocking Goose beers never before seen in the UK, which we hope will excite the London marketplace.”

Personally, I initially saw Balham, a South London suburb around 20 minutes from the centre of town, as a curious choice. But after speaking to Cowan I realized the location was a perfect way for Goose to test the market.

“Balham has a growing craft scene, so the Vintage Ale House is the obvious next step looking at those target markets locally, as well as outside of Balham into Central London,” he says. “We are lucky to be surrounded by an adventurous audience in London who are always keen to see what a new concept can bring.”

In addition to opening its own chain of pubs, Goose is also making significant inroads into the UK on trade, with rumors of heavily discounted kegs circulating around the industry like wildfire, much like last year's Pacific NW uproar when it was learned that AB's craft kegs were being sold for nearly half-price. I spoke to Charlie McVeigh, owner and founder of the Draft House chain of craft beer bars. Draft House now has nine sites in London and just opened its first site outside the capital, in nearby Milton Keynes. 

“All pubs need good value beers with support. We also need great local and independent brewers. Camden has always been an exceptionally good value beer as well,” McVeigh says of the AB InBev-owned London brewery. “Beers with brand recognition will always sell more and in some instances will also deliver a higher profit margin—that is a good thing for pubs.”
But McVeigh doesn’t think that the better value available from brands such as Goose Island will be to the detriment of independents, stating that there’s room for everyone. Nor does he think that his relationship with AB InBev will affect customer perception of his bars. He also has a personal fondness for Goose, as well as other InBev products such as Munich’s Spaten. 

“John Hall is one of the coolest brewers I have ever met," he says. "After all, the guy was putting on block parties with Wilco, The Sonics and the Feelies since back in the '80s!”

Goose’s ownership and expansion appears to be having little impact on the perception of the brand, other than it’s one that’s now nationalized here in the UK. Beer geeks may choose a beer from a small and independent brewer over a Goose product, but in a country where 90% of the market share is still mass-produced Lager, it’s clear AB InBev sees the Goose brand as its point of difference.

All of this activity and significant financial investment starts to build a picture of AB InBev’s longterm plan for the brands that sit in its High End division. With the UK’s craft beer culture yet to reach maturity, long established U.S. brands such as Goose, Brooklyn, and Sierra Nevada are investing heavily to build a lasting platform in a market they can defend and grow as their Stateside opportunities tighten. We could just as easily see an Elysian or 10-Barrel brewpub in the UK in a few years time, as much as the U.S. might see the very same from Camden Town or Birra Del Borgo in the not too distant future. Hospitality in the form of pubs and brewpubs seems to be core piece of the global strategy for capitalizing on the the AB InBev High End portfolio. 

And judging by the positive reaction from the UK consumer, it looks like all of this effort from Goose Island won’t be in vain. I learned as much speaking to customers in line on Black Friday. 

“I didn’t even know about who owned them when I got in the queue,” said Oliver Parsons, who'd been in line since 9:30am. “But that doesn’t matter to me. It's all about how good the beer actually tastes rather than who owns the brewery.”

Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis