Goose Island, The Salt Shed team up for venue brewpub

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Goose Island Beer Co. was nothing short of revolutionary when opening in 1988 on an industrial strip of Clybourn Avenue about 2 miles northwest of downtown Chicago.

Most obvious, of course, was the simple fact that it made and served its beer in the heart of Chicago, in a barroom that founder John Hall wanted to emulate the pubs he’d come to love in England while on business trips in the 1970s and ’80s.

Breweries are everywhere these days, but when Goose Island opened its doors that May — so long ago, Ronald Reagan was president — it was one of just three in the city. Beer at the time was largely about drinking Bud and Miller made in faraway factories. Goose Island made Chicago think of beer as something that could be made locally, and even sipped under the same roof where it was brewed.

The other visionary component in Hall’s plan: Goose Island’s location.

The Goose Island Brewhouse at 1800 N. Clybourn Ave. on Oct. 16, 2017.

Hall knew the location of his brewery was paramount, and Clybourn Avenue fit seamlessly with where he saw both Chicago and its beer drinking headed. That stretch of Clybourn was in the midst of generational churn, shifting from decades as a blue-collar engine to Chicago’s modern white-collar leanings.

As I wrote in my 2018 book about Goose Island’s rise and eventual sale to Anheuser-Busch, that transformation was key for Hall; he believed in progress and that things always moved forward. Either you moved with them, or you slipped back.

Hall was spot on, and for more than 20 years, Goose Island’s brewpub was one of the most important and enjoyable places to drink beer in Chicago. But 34 years later, Hall was spot on about something else: By staying put all these years, Goose Island had slipped back.

A lunchtime crowd fills the Goose Island brewpub on Nov. 25, 2016, as newly released Bourbon County Stout is uncorked. The wood structure above the bar was replaced during a renovation in 2017.

What was once revolutionary has become an afterthought in an intensely competitive beer landscape. There’s nothing interesting or alluring about that stretch of Clybourn Avenue anymore. Rather than a vanguard, Goose Island is now stuffed into a bland, overdeveloped corner of the city, squeezed between Best Buy, CVS and Bed Bath & Beyond.

Goose Island’s mission became muddied too. Once wholly dedicated to the idea of drinking local, that pub became a nexus of odd bedfellows following Goose Island’s 2011 sale to Anheuser-Busch, serving beer made on-site alongside beer made at Anheuser-Busch breweries — the same stuff available at airports and convenience stores across the nation.

As the craft beer scene surged around it, Goose Island’s brewpub seemed stagnant. It got a much-needed makeover in 2017, but that only underscored its problem, trading any semblance of history and charm for sleek cookie-cutter blandness.

A new home at The Salt Shed is meant to change all that.

As first reported last week by Crain’s Chicago Business, Goose Island will leave its original Clybourn Avenue home next year to move into the high-profile $50 million music venue. Just as its old home once did, it puts Goose Island in the heart of the action.

Built from the former Morton Salt complex that’s impossible to miss from the Kennedy Expressway, The Salt Shed opened last summer from 16 on Center, a hospitality group behind a collection of hip and visionary restaurants and music venues that include Longman & Eagle, Dusek’s Tavern, Thalia Hall and Empty Bottle.

People wait to cross the street to the new Salt Shed performance space in Chicago on Aug. 2, 2022.

Goose Island has long tried to establish itself as a lifestyle brand, based in part on an embrace of live music. A key ally has been 16 on Center, which has teamed up with Goose Island on events that include the 312 Block Party outside Goose Island’s West Town production brewery and Music Frozen Dancing outside Empty Bottle.

Goose Island President Todd Ahsmann declined an interview with the Tribune, but in a statement, he nodded to the need for change, saying The Salt Shed “gives us a great opportunity to evolve with Chicago.” Ahsmann told Crain’s that Goose Island was not looking to move, but The Salt Shed offered “one of those too-good-to-pass-up, on-the-river” opportunities.

Its future home “connects us with live music and entertainment, which has always been such a defining cultural aspect of Chicago,” he said in the statement.

People listen to a performance by Nubya Garcia at The Salt Shed, a newly developed performance space in Chicago, on Aug. 2, 2022.

A Goose Island spokesperson said it was too soon to say when the Clybourn pub would close and the new pub open, though both are expected to happen by the end of 2023. The brewing equipment at the current location will be moved to the pub’s future home.

Bruce Finkelman, managing partner of 16 on Center, said he and partner Craig Golden envisioned a brewery as part of The Salt Shed project from the start.

“We really wanted it to be filled with, for lack of a better word, makers,” Finkelman said. “We didn’t just want stuff. We wanted people making stuff.”

I asked Finkelman how 16 on Center settled on Goose Island, rather than a younger brewery that could be considered edgier or more progressive. Finkelman said he talked with several Chicago breweries about occupying the space, but found a fit with Goose Island based on shared history and perspectives.

“They might be a bigger company, but they’re still right there with all the music stuff with us,” he said. “We have similar views on music and community.”

John Hall, left, the founder of Goose Island Beer Co., and Todd Ahsmann, the company president, are at Goose Island's Clybourn Avenue brewpub in Chicago on March 12, 2019.

Also of note is Goose Island’s flexibility as an Anheuser-Busch subsidiary. Operating a brewery at The Salt Shed is likely not only expensive, but a move many smaller breweries would deem a risky luxury three years into the COVID-19 pandemic and amid intense craft beer industry headwinds. But those are the kinds of risks a brewery can absorb when it is part of the world’s largest beer company.

What Goose Island sacrifices in leaving the southwest corner of the Lincoln Park neighborhood, it gains by plugging into a high-profile concert venue in the heart of the city with plenty of major acts through the year and as many as 3,500 people in a night — people who might not care their India pale ale wasn’t made on-site, but in upstate New York.

A changing city and an evermore competitive beer landscape meant Goose Island had challenges to navigate that Hall never could have envisioned in 1988. Thanks at least in part to its sale to Anheuser-Busch in 2011, it is able to navigate them boldly.

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