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The Golden Goose: How brewmaster Greg Hall makes beer soar

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By J.C. Geiger

Since the first night Greg Hall stole a Stroh´s from his father’s fridge, he’s always wanted more.

“That was what my father drank,” the Goose Island brewmaster explains. “That was back when they had the old gold-and-white label. In those early years of discovery, the easiest place for me to explore was the basement fridge. My dad always had a variety of interesting beer bottles too, but only two or three of them. I knew he wouldn’t miss much from a twenty-four pack.”

As Hall got older, the allure of the more exotic bottles grew. “I loved seeing them in the liquor store, even as a kid. Those different beers always seemed so much more interesting to me than the stacks and cases—and there was something on the label you could read about.”

Greg Hall now supplies shops with his own share of literature—over fourteen different beer labels, some boasting origin tales to rival Greek myth.

Demolition, a strong, golden beer, rose from the rubble of a nearby building teardown to reward their most intrepid regulars. Pere Jacques, a malty, fruity ale, commemorates an Abbot by the same name who allowed Hall and his team a peek at his notoriously secretive Trappist brewery. One of their newer ales, Matilda, inspired by Belgian legends and landscapes, recently took home a silver award from Seattle’s World Beer Cup.

“We’re really proud of that one,” Hall says. “It takes two different temperamental yeast strains, and requires most of our team—brewers and cellar-men—to make it happen.” In other brewing achievements, Hall’s received golds for his IPA and Hex Nut Brown Ale, and in 1998 brewed over 100 different beers in a single calendar year. These days, the work is paying off.

Last week alone Goose Island Brewery garnered mentions in both Esquire and Food & Wine magazines, as well as an appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Hall’s segment involved the host assisting in the production of his own, honorary brew: ¨Conan the Red Ale.”

“He wanted it to be called Conan the Pale Ale, or Conan the Pale, Pale Ale. He’s pretty self-deprecating about his complexion,” Hall adds.

Seeing a brewmaster spotlighted on late-night television is something new to America; only since the mid-nineties has there been a real craft-beer culture to speak of. Hall sees the increase in publicity as being indicative of a national trend—one the numbers reflect.

“Last year the craft beer market grew by 9 percent. Within that market, IPAs grew by over 24 percent. That’s a ridiculous growth to have in any market. It tells us once people get those big tastes in their beers—once they have those IPA hops, they find it hard to go back. Small breweries have done for beer what Starbucks and Intelligentsia have done for coffee; you get used to that strong taste, and that cup of Folgers just doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Hall cites this demand as being responsible for Chicago’s rapidly changing beer landscape. “I remember, years ago, I had a friend bragging to me about his bar. He said ‘We’ve got variety here, too. We’ve got Miller, Miller Light, Bud, Bud Light, Coors and Michelob.’ He was serious. That’s not enough now. Even bars like Bar Louie and Shaw’s Crab House, where you wouldn’t expect good craft beers, are serving a great variety now, and that’s going to continue.” 

Despite the trend in what’s being poured at local bars, in Chicago’s metropolitan area of more than ten million people, Goose Island remains one of the city’s few craft breweries. Portland, Oregon boasts more than twenty-five; even Anchorage, Alaska has five. Why is Chicago, a beer-drinkers’ city, so lacking?

“I ask myself that question almost everyday,” Hall muses. “There’s a number of reasons. The big guys don’t spend their advertising money in Portland or Alaska, they spend it here. Also, brewpubs thrive on their food business, and the expectations for food in Chicago are high. Very high.”

Building on these expectations, Hall’s currently campaigning to have Goose Island beers served in Chicago’s finest restaurants. He’s taken the lead in his own pubs by offering pairing suggestions with several dishes. Goose Island’s menu suggests an Oatmeal Stout with Campfire Pork and Beans, an IPA with jambalaya, and a Nut Brown Ale with pulled pork. He hopes his culinary ambitions are contagious.

“I don’t understand how a four-star chef will send back a whole box of shallots because the first one he pulls out is a little wilted, then turn around and sign for a palette of skunky, imported beer. The new generation of American chefs are about flavors, and with so many big flavors on the table, they’re going to need them in the glass too.”

Hall admits the wine bottle casts a long shadow in the culinary world, but has seen a recent shift in gourmet attitudes. “For example, I got a chance to visit the American Cheese Society. They told me although they still drink wine with their cheese, they actually prefer beer.” He’s not just referring to mozzarella on a deep-dish crust; Hall has held a number of gourmet-cheese pairing sessions, specifically aimed at educating the beer drinker’s palette.

“It’s true that the best wines in the world achieve a level of complexity that beer probably can’t. But beers have bigger and broader tastes than wine can hope for. Beers are less subtle, and you don’t have to be an expert to appreciate them.”

In that vein, Hall contends he’s no beer snob.

“Not at all. That’s what’s great about beer. You can wear jeans and be loud. You can stand at Navy Pier and shout over a band while you’re drinking it. You don’t have to put on a three-piece suit, and walk around sipping and talking quietly.” Likewise, he admits he doesn’t always have to drink the good stuff.        “Sometimes you’re at the Empty Bottle at 2am, and after a night of drinking IPAs and stouts you don’t want anything too heavy. You know, I might go home and grab an import or something light.”

Is there still a case of Stroh’s in the fridge? Hall laughs, and doesn’t answer. 


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