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Goose Island's Home Brew

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Around the turn of the [last] century, Chicago was a brewer's mecca, home to some 55 breweries," says Greg Hall, the 33-year-old brewmaster of Goose Island Beer Company. In fact, Chicago was born over beer. The city charter was drafted and signed in a tavern, and several of the founding fathers and earliest officeholders for whom streets are named were brewers or tavern owners--Ogden, Wacker, and Diversey among them.

But after decades of decline, the last brewery in town--Peter Hand's Meister Brau--closed up shop in 1977 and the industry basically dried up. That is, until John Hall, Greg's father, faced a midlife crisis. In 1986, feeling boxed in by an unsatisfying corporate life, he read about a new concept associated with his passion for craft beer called "brewpubs." It didn't take long for him to chuck his executive position with a container manufacturer, raise some cash, contact a team of experts, and set off to start a brewery.

"Dad immediately realized the futility of trying to launch an undercapitalized, full-scale brewery to compete with the Millers and Buds and Old Styles of the world," says Greg. "We just didn't have the experience to run a brewery and deal with distributors. So we were forced to start small and that enabled us to concentrate on developing a high-quality beer."

The elder Hall opened the first Goose Island Brewpub in Lincoln Park in 1988, initially brewing just the flagship Honker's Ale (a caramel-colored English pale ale) and serving hamburgers, pizza, and seasoned potato chips.

"Chicago's a very demanding restaurant town, so we also had to improve our food service while we perfected our beer. It was a mutual learning experience that continues today--we introduced the public to craft beers while learning about the restaurant and brewery business," says Greg. The seasoned chips survived as the menu was improved and expanded to include grilled salmon, filet mignon, Andouille sausage pizza, and a Stilton burger--a halfpound of grilled ground beef topped with roasted garlic and Stilton cheese.

The younger Hall dropped out of college in 1988 to help his dad open the brewpub, initially earning minimum wage as a brewer's assistant. "Waitresses earned more than me, but I sure learned a lot about brewing beer," he says. He went on to study at the Siebel Institute--home of the U.S. Brewers Academy, a school for professional brewers--and visit hundreds of breweries around the world. Now he oversees the production of Honker's Ale plus four other year-round beers and five seasonal brews.

Emboldened by their success at the brewpub and a steady stream of awards and accolades for their foamy product, the Halls decided to begin bottling and distributing their beers to a wider audience. In April 1995, they bought a 34,000-square-foot factory at 1800 W. Fulton and began outfitting it to house a modern brewery. The brewery opened in late '95 and Goose Island's output doubled overnight. In just five years production has catapulted from 2,500 to 50,000 barrels per year. Now employing 180 people, Goose Island has become the biggest craft beer brewer in the midwest.

Filling all those bottles with beer is a fairly simple, four-step process: malt (usually barley malt) is milled into grist that is mixed with hot purified water to produce mash; the liquid (wort) is filtered from the mash and transferred to a giant copper kettle where it's reheated and hops are added. The wort is sent through a heat exchanger into a fermentation tank, where yeast is added. The resulting brew is then aged for varying lengths of time, depending on the type of product, before kegging or bottling.

The artistry comes in knowing just what and how much grain and yeast to use and when to use it "Our malt comes from Wisconsin and Belgium; our hops are from Washington, Oregon, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia. We use three different types of yeast to produce our various beers," Greg points out. "The secret to making really good beer in bottles is to prevent oxidation. And unlike the mass-market brewers, we don't pasteurize our beer, but take extra steps and do a lot of testing to ensure no bacteria enters the process."

The Halls' products lean toward rich flavorful ales in the European tradition--from a British brown ale to an India pale ale, and from a thick, dark oatmeal stout to a pale German kolsch. In 1997 they took over the Baderbrau label from its former brewer, thus adding a Bohemian pilsner and a Viennese lager to the roster. Goose Island also produces two organic beers under the Wolaver label, one for the brewpub and one marketed by Whole Foods, as well as a root beer and an orange cream soda.

A second brewpub opened in Wrigleyville last year, and the Hails are expanding the company's profile by participating in street fairs and city festivals all over town. "Even as we grow, we're still very committed to Chicago. This is our home," says Greg. "Our goal continues to be getting more people to drink good beer."

Goose Island Brewpubs are at 1800 N. Clybourn, 312-915-007 1, and 3535 N. Clark, 773-832-9040.

-PAUL SCHOENWETTER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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