Book Review: Josh Noel's Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out


Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out
Josh Noel
Chicago Review Press
400 pages, $20

Disclosure: I have never met Josh, but did agree to blurb the book after reading it.

The world of beer has a number of friction points that are mostly hidden from public view. They often have a PR component that does get talked about--independence, authenticity, quality, consistency, localness--but the stuff that causes real hurt? That usually goes unsaid. In Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out, veteran Chicago Tribune reporter Josh Noel has spent seven years working on a complex and spiky narrative: the transition of Goose Island from indie champion to corporate hood ornament. He interviewed scads of people at Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and in and around Chicago and craft brewing, and delivers the most interesting industry book I can remember reading. Far from turning away from those friction points, this whole book can be read as their exploration.

The book starts like a lot in this genre--the triumphant success of a small business with interesting and irascible characters spicing up the story. As he tells it, however, Noel begins sprinkling in discordant elements that become the seeds of an entirely different story, one that picks up midway through the book, after Goose Island is sold to Anheuser-Busch. This is when it gets really interesting, and the second half of the book deeply explores the way big beer thinks about craft beer. During this part of the story, all those little seeds planted earlier begin to sprout and blossom, and the contrast between the myth of craft and the reality of big beer begin to surface all those friction points.

One thing that becomes manifestly clear in Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out (BASSO hereafter) is that the craft mindset and approach is very different from the national beer approach and mindset. They are entirely different beasts. Fascinatingly, both emerge somewhat beaten-up and somewhat exonerated. Craft beer is exposed as naive, unwarrantedly brash, inconsistent, and unstrategic--and revolutionary, visionary, and wholly committed to "craft" over commerce. The two are sides of the same coin, inextricable. Big beer, by contrast, is revealed to be entirely uncommitted to the beer, cautious, hidebound, and naive (in entirely different ways)--but also strategic, sophisticated organizationally, and committed to consistency. Again, two sides of the same, very different coin.

Throughout the book, people on both sides think there's a way to square this circle, to bring the best of craft and big beer together. The second half of BASSO lays bare why that was never possible. The good and bad of each approach are actually just the positive and negative qualities of the same thing. It's just not possible to be both revolutionary and cautious. As the story plays out, these cultures clash, and one comes out triumphant. (I'll give you one guess as to which side prevails.) Every time a little brewery sells out to a big brewery, a press release mouths some platitude about how this will help the little brewery realize its potential, how the big brewery is just there to nurture the little guy. Anyone who has read BASSO will forever see those words as sad naivete or self-delusion.

The book is, beyond its many amazing revelations, quite a page-turner. Because Noel interviewed so many people (107 names are listed, and a note mentions there were additional anonymous sources), there's real personality throughout. Two of the most interesting characters are John and Greg Hall, who in many ways personify the tensions between the corporate and craft approach. John, a businessman, sees nothing wrong with "selling-out"--it's the payoff a successful entrepreneur rightly enjoys. Greg is pure craft, an intense, smart, ambitious guy who becomes the book's central tragic figure. By the end of the book, a melancholy hangs over the pages. Greg's off on his new, doomed project, Virtue Cider, unable to recapture the success of 1980s and '90s Goose Island. Meanwhile, most Goose Island production is being farmed out to Budweiser plants and, although the brand is successful, there's a pervasive sense of dissipation.

The book will be interesting to anyone, really. But the closer the reader is to the inside of the industry, the more fascinating it becomes. Noel included a lot of material about how AB operates that was new to me. There are details galore people will be talking about for years to come. I hope people in the industry do read it, because no matter which part you inhabit, there will be portions invisible to you. In surfacing so much, Noel has given us a common set of information. Before we had the trunk or leg of the elephant and weren't entirely sure what the beast was--now we can all look at it whole and draw our own conclusions.

It's a great book, one that has seriously advanced my understanding of the beer business--and one that was so compelling I read it in a couple days while lying on a beach in Hawaii. I suspect you'll gobble it down, too. The official ship date is June 1, but you can pre-order now.