"Craft beer is a smokey, fowl mouthed teenager:" An interview with craft beer writer Josh Noel

Josh Noel | Michelle Kanaar, Independent Publishers Group

Josh Noel | Michelle Kanaar, Independent Publishers Group

In Chicago, Goose Island brewery was more than a name. It stood for innovation, entrepreneurship, and good beer. It used to, anyway, until 2011 when the brewery was sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev, a multinational beer conglomerate. Goose Island’s sale was the first major acquisition of a craft brewery by “Big Beer,” and for many in Chicago it was the beginning of the end of the city’s original, premier brewpub.

Josh Noel is the Chicago Tribune’s beer writer, and for the last 5 years he researched and wrote the definitive story of Goose Island, from its establishment to its sale and the fallout. In September 2018 his book, “Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out” won the award for Best Book from the North American Guild of Beer Writers. Here, in his own words, he speaks about the book, his journalistic background, and which beers have had a lasting impact on him.

There's actually a list of people I interviewed in the back of the book but that's not a full list because there are plenty of people who requested and were granted anonymity. And there's information in the book that came from like a 20 minute conversation with people in a bar which aren't listed back there but in their own way were an interview, you know what I mean? [The total number of] people I talked to for the book over the course of the five years I spent reporting and writing it... a couple hundred, maybe.

[Goose Island was] fairly open [to talking], to their credit. To their credit, to Anheuser-Busch's credit. They basically made anyone available to me that I asked for, with the exception of one person. Did you get to Michael Taylor in the book? The M&A guy. You'll see why they would not put me in touch with Michael Taylor.

They want to get their story out there. But they also want their story told on their terms. So they made a lot of people available to me to tell the story and to try to tell the story on their terms. Some people from Goose I talked to, past or present, I interviewed without asking anyone's permission. I didn't go through AB or Goose. I would just text someone directly and say, “Hey, I'm writing this book. Do you mind getting together for a beer and chatting?” And some of those people are not mentioned at the back because they work at Goose Island and didn't want to get their name out there.

I've texted some people at Goose and said, “What do you think [of the book]?” The answer has always been, "Oh, I just started it." Or "I only read the chapter I'm in" or something like that. So I haven't really had an exhaustive conversation with anyone there about it.

I think this book could not have been written three years after the sale. It was just still happening, you know. And it's still happening now. But we can see what's going on. AB’s strategy with craft beer and how Goose Island fits into it is very clear now. The agenda for Goose Island is very clear now. They sold in 2011. In 2014 it was not clear at all. I was getting a little nervous toward the end of the writing process. My agent said, "you got to finish this book up" and I said, "I don't have the end of the book yet." There's no end to the narrative.

But then two things happened, which did give me the end of the narrative, which you will see what those two things are. One was John Hall selling the Clybourn brewpub to Anuehuser-Busch as well. And the other was the Wicked Weed sale. So that sort of put the period on the sentence twice, or if you prefer, put the exclamation point on the sentence. Both of those things I think helped to close the loop of what started in 2011 with the sale.

The "holy shit" beers along the way for me — because you know what the reason was, my stepfather drank some. He drinks St. Paulie Girl and there's another one that he drank a lot of. It might have been Beck's. But I always liked St. Paulie Girl. When I was a teenager that was like "that's good beer."

And then I dabbled. I thought Red Stripe was a cool beer for a while, which of course it's not. I say Paulie Girl stands up somewhat.

My freshman year of college, my roommate brought home some Guinness, which was a "holy shit" moment for me. Most definitely. The first time you drink a Guinness it's like "What the hell is this?" then as you understand what it is, you realize it’s brilliant.

And then along the way Honkers Ale was huge for me.

I came back to Chicago after being in Casa Grande, Arizona. I moved back to Chicago at the age of... let's just say the late ‘90s. With Honkers Ale I was like, “this is great beer.” And then I had Goose Island Oatmeal Stout. And that was another eye-opener.

Then jump ahead. I dated a woman who worked at the Great Lakes brew pub in Cleveland for a while so I'd go to Cleveland to visit her. She turned me on to Nosferatu. Now we're talking probably 2000. No wait, no, that would have been about the same era actually about late ‘90s actually. Nosferatu was a "holy crap" beer for me. Then I moved to Louisiana and Andygator by Abita — well actually the whole Abita portfolio is great to me — which it's not but it's —big for me and Andygator, which I think is a Dopple Bock, that was a big one for me.

I've wanted to be a journalist since I was 12, which I think is probably about the actual number. And I started out thinking I'd be a sports writer. I did that for a little while. And then I realized I didn't want to do that. Because, you know, sports is fine, but they're just games. Then I became a news writer and I was a news writer for a lot of my career. That's what I came to the Chicago Tribune as before I did stops at the newspapers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Casa Grande, Arizona.

I went to high school in Tucson. So I lived here from birth to 14 in the Lakeview neighborhood, and then moved to Tucson and went to high school there and got my first job at the Casa Grande newspaper. I went back, I dropped out of college, got that newspaper job, went back to college, finished, then got the Baton Rogue job, then came to the Tribune news writing. I did that for three years covering mostly crime and then became the travel writer at the Tribune, because that job was open. And I thought, “who the hell wouldn't want to be a travel writer?” I didn't think I'd get it. I just applied for it. And I got it. So I was a travel writer, which was fun, [and I] did that for about 10 years. I started writing about beers sort of on the side back in '09, I want to say.

The craft beer movement was just really starting to take off and starting to develop in Chicago. So [the paper] just needed someone in the features department, which travel was in, to write about beer now and then, because it was becoming this thing. Beer was becoming as important or more important, culturally, than wine and I'd say now it's far surpassed wine in terms of cultural importance.

The first story I did, I mean, the earliest stories are really me learning, too. It's like my education was unfolding in the newspaper. My first story was about different kinds of hoppy beer. I looked at an American take on hops, a British take on hops, and a Belgian take on hops, and how each of those three countries used hops. Which might actually might be kind of a cool story to do again.

Those earliest stories were trying to sort of make sense of what was happening in beer for myself and for the reader. It was it was a toddler at the time, American craft beer. Now it's a smokey, foul mouth teenager.

If you enjoyed this interview please consider supporting me on Patreon