Goose Island Beer Co. President Ken Stout knows a little something about competition. The youngest of 15 children growing up, he was also a tenacious walk-on for DePaul University’s basketball team in the 1980s.
So, no, he doesn’t feel bad for craft brewers in China bemoaning Goose Island’s growing presence there, part of a global expansion backed by parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev’s considerable muscle.
“What good would it do us here in Chicago to be bellyaching with all the new breweries that have opened up in the last 10 years? … It’s just competition. It’s the same with any industry. For some reason, beer gets a little more scrutiny because it’s a more personal thing,” said Stout, 53, who became Goose Island president in 2015.
Some diehards swore off Goose Island forever when Anheuser-Busch acquired Chicago’s oldest craft brewery for $38.8 million in 2011. In the years since, there’s been an almost frenetic blurring of lines between Big Beer and craft beer as consolidation continues.
Stout makes no apologies. Before the deal, Goose Island was struggling to meet demand in other states, he said.
Now, Goose Island brews more varieties of beer in Chicago than ever before, employs more people, distributes nationally, and exports to 13 global markets, he said. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: So, you were the youngest of 15 kids. What was that like?
Answer: First one up was the best dressed.
Looking back, it was never a dull moment. My mom would always say, the best thing you can do is show me how much you don’t need me. Self-reliance. Get good grades at school. Stay out of trouble. Those were the best things you could do.
Q: What are some of the most significant changes for Goose Island since the acquisition?
A: When we partnered with Anheuser-Busch in 2011, we had about 110 full-time employees. Now we have 150 and growing. We’ve added 40. So not only are we adding talent and providing jobs, we’re providing more advancement opportunities.
The other major thing is, we’ve always made great beers and we’re proud of it, but because of our partnership with Anheuser-Busch, we have access to quality control and quality assurance measures that most breweries anywhere near our size can only dream of. Not only that, but the expertise that goes along with it.
Q: Some people no longer consider Goose Island a craft brewery because of its ownership. In terms of Goose Island’s identity, does the word craft even really matter at this point?
A: We can’t dwell on any criticism we receive. We’re aware of it. And yeah, it stings. We’re real flesh and blood people here. Most of us were here before the acquisition. There’s a reason why we’re still here. It’s been really, really positive for us. We’ve been treated well. And we’re really proud of the beers we’re putting out. We have a really high level of camaraderie here at the brewery.
Listen, if we concentrate on what we do and what we do well and keep doing that and taking the high road, I can’t help but think that criticism will die down. It will probably never get to zero, but hey, man, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and trying to make friends with the brewery.
Q: Are the limited release Bourbon County beers a way of staying connected with the craft beer community?
A: We’ve been making Bourbon County stout since the mid-1990s. … We’ve always been into barrel aging. Goose has always been a leader in the barrel-aging process for craft brewing. That hasn’t changed. But yeah, it’s a way now — it wasn’t intended this way from the beginning — but it’s a way now to help us retain credibility as a brewer.
Q: Did the last year’s bacterial infection issues and subsequent recall hurt the Bourbon County brand?
A: We’re moving on. I think we handled it well. We gave refunds or replaced bottles for everybody. We’re a better barrel-aging program as a result. This Black Friday, our big release day after Thanksgiving, there will be a lot of proof in that pudding. So if those lines are just as long as they’ve ever been, we’ll know that bump in the road in 2016 is well behind us.
Q: Do you think we’re approaching a saturation point for craft breweries in Chicago?
A: I don’t know. It’s interesting. It’s like saying do we have too many pizza parlors or too many burrito stands? I don’t know. Chicagoans love pizza and they love burritos and they love beer. I think the key is … it’s not good enough just to open. You gotta be making great beer.
Q: What’s new in Chicago that people should know about?
A: We have a new event center opening at the Sacramento (Boulevard) barrel-aging warehouse. And we’ll be able to host some really cool events there. We want to be as elevated of an experience as one might have in Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley. We’re going to do some really culinary things with beer as well, letting people tour the barrel-aging warehouse and learn about barrel aging.
Q: What’s your biggest global export market?
A: It’s still the U.K., but we’re over in Belgium now, over in Netherlands. We just opened up France, Italy. In the Far East, a lot of interest in craft beer. We’re in South Korea, we’re in China.
Q: What’s the fastest-growing market at this point?
A: On pure volume, it’s probably London. On percentage (of volume sales growth), I’d have to look that up. But my guess is probably China. It’s such a huge market and we have a brewpub now in Shanghai.
Q: What went into the decision to open a brewpub in Shanghai?
A: The infrastructure’s there. And it’s one of those things where if we don’t do it, somebody else will.
Q: Will Goose expand into new global markets in the year ahead?
A: Sure. Definitely.
Q: As you look to expand globally and also in the U.S., is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed? If you can get Goose anywhere, and it’s no longer special, aren’t you hurting the demand?
A: It’s a tough question and we are doing research on that. In other words, when you start to look at some other major national craft brands, and you look at history of their business and growth, at what point in time does your growth start to flatten out? And we know what that number is, at least historically. So the question to ourselves is, OK, what do we have to watch out for? Or can we overcome that?
And we’re in the Anheuser-Busch distribution network. It’s the best distribution network for any (consumer packaged goods) anywhere in the world. We conceivably could have our beer in every licensed retailer in the country. Would that hurt demand ultimately, though? That ol’ double-edged sword. We are doing research on it now. Because we have plans.