Good Beer Hunting


Goose Island the Next king of Beers? — A Good Look at Chicago's Heir to the Throne

A couple Thursdays ago, I had the unique opportunity to visit Goose Island during working hours for some photo documentation. I’ve been here a few times for hosted events, but never to document the brewery itself. I was psyched to get some extended access. Paul from put together a reflective article about Goose Island, post-AB buyout, for the Chicagoist and this was a perfect chance (thanks to Paul) to get a real good look at what it means to brew craft beer for one of the big guys. In short, it still looks a lot like brewing for the little guys, but with serious momentum. 

I met Joel Becker on second shift outside the Fulton Market location a bit west of Chicago’s downtown Loop. One round of Goose Island staff was exiting to their cars as the sun set, but for people like Joel, things were just getting started. 

After a quick tour of the sprawling facility, including the packaging line, loading bays, mill and barrel rooms, even the lab, Joel gave me a swig of Old Town Yard and couple safety instructions, then set me loose to document every nook and cranny I desired. Like anyone who works 40+ hours a week, Joel finds it understandable, but amusing, that people like me nerd out over valves and tools. He sees the blogs, and he sees shots like these below often. It makes him smile. 

I set out immediately, met some of the staff, and started shooting. What follows is the most comprehensive look I’ve ever had at a production brewery. I grew up working summer jobs in factories and restaurants, so a big part of me still loves the efficiency and optimization between man and machine. Combining that love with the mastery and passion for craft beer and, well, you get a post like this. With over two hours at my disposal, it felt amazing to just be able to take my time and look for the shots.

Later, as you’ll see below, Joel and Zach shared a new “innovation recipe” with me, called En Passant, straight from the fermenter. In an upcoming post, I’ll give you a good look at John Laffler’s barrel room across the street, as well as the En Passant release party held there the following week. For now, I’ll keep the En Passant chatter a bit sparse. Enjoy.

The mezzanine level provides a look inside the various mashes. From here, brewers get hands on adding ingredients and managing flows from one tank to the next on the “human-machine interface.” On this visit, they were brewing up an imperial IPA with a mesmerizing mash texture that beckoned me like an hallucination from the movie Altered States. 

We took a quick trip outside where three main silos hover over the alley like monuments. Just inside, a huge fermenter laying on its side and smaller units built right into the walls, which provide easy access to the three outside tanks. 

In a nearby barrel aging room, the sour smell of Brettanomyces hung in the air, a spore-forming yeast strain used to make tart beers like Juliet and Lolita. This room is kept sealed from any other process in the brewery to prevent infections from spreading. The delicate nature of working with Brettanomyces has ruined plenty of batches at less stringent craft brewers. Entering this room, we had to dip our shoes in sterilizer.

At 6pm, the main floor was a bit sleepy. Some cleaning and monitoring from the first shift gets underway, while the guys get to work loading the grain mill up on the mezzanine level. 

Goose’s big beers were busy getting shuffled from one stack to another in the cooling room. Each one of those stacks contains some of the country’s best, and most sought-after barrel-aged brews — Sofie, Pepe Nero, Pere Jacques, Juliet, Big John — you name it, it’s in here.  

The packaging line is a mix of hands-on and automated work. A small team of employees fill the cases by hand, and then send it zipping down the line to get sealed and rotated into stock. 

The most obvious sign of change is in the kegs. Almost every one I saw, even those with Sophie-branded caps, was from Anheuser-Busch. Poignant to some, perhaps. For others, a cautiously optimistic sign of the opportunity ahead for Goose Island in terms of distribution and optimization. There really isn’t much holding them back at this point. 

In the lab, there’s plenty of activity between Goose Island and other AB production breweries as they share the task of perfecting Goose’s original recipes on new equipment. The guys smell and taste a recent Matilda sample, and contemplate their next move with the batch. 

The Siebel Institute (located on Clybourn Ave. near Goose’s brew-pub) has a cluttered, but substantial system permanently set up in one of the smaller brewing rooms here. Members of the institute experiment with recipes, learn about some of the finer points of the brewing process, and otherwise combine the realms of academia and real-world experience to keep everyone fresh. 

Joel and Zach, a recent internal hire and former chemist at AB, tap into En Passant, even as we watch the meter dip as it rushes into kegs on the other side. The brainchild of a small team including Joel and fellow brewers Keith Gabbet and Claudia Jendron, En Passant is brewed after a recipe for an Old Fashioned cocktail. This sweet, cool brew has a slight rye kick that pairs perfectly with whiskey. Not a bad way to end a shoot — but there’s much more to the story. In an upcoming post, I’ll take us over to the barrel room — one of the largest, if not the largest, in the country. And after that, the En Passant release party. 

Michael Kiser