Goose Island Adds New Markets, Pushes Towards 230,000 Barrels In 2012

It’s been almost 18 months since Chicago-based Goose Island was acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev. Despite some initial pushback from die-hard craft enthusiasts who cried foul over the possibility their beloved brewer had sold out, the company has shown impressive growth, up 20 percent over the past year, and it should soar even higher in the year to come.

Goose Island sold approximately 150,000 barrels in 2011, but it is expecting over 230,000 barrels for 2012. Still, lest the company’s rapid expansion behind Honker’s Ale and 312 Urban Wheat give credence to the cares of the die-hards, that growth has been balanced by increased emphasis on its high-end barrel-aging program, which is about to become the country’s largest.

Here’s the expansion story: since the acquisition, Goose Island has entered 11 new markets, all east of Chicago: the new distribution footprint includes Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Atlanta and New Orleans.

But those new markets are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Goose Island’s communications manager, Mark Mahoney. The brewer plans to leverage its AB wholesaler network in two other craft-savvy markets before the end of the year, adding Texas and Colorado to its distribution map, and then increase the footprint further the following year.

So how does the Goose determine which direction it flies? And is Anheuser Busch now the leader of the gaggle? Mahoney told that the company looks at four key factors before plotting a course, but that the parent company’s network is certainly part of the mix.

“We take a look at competition, demographics, seasonality and opportunities within the AB network before we make a decision on what (and where) to launch first,” Mahoney said.

In Colorado, Mahoney said, Goose Island will launch across the entire state with its full portfolio right from the outset. Beer will begin shipping to retailers on September 10, and the strategy is to educate consumers about the range of beers available from Goose Island.

“Our classic ales set the standard for their respective categories,” he said. “Our vintage ales push the envelope in terms of taste and brewing process.”

But the AB network has help the Goose do more than just spread its wings into new markets — it has also helped to relieve some capacity constraints in the Chicago facility. Mahoney said approximately 85 percent of 312 Urban Wheat, Honker’s Ale and IPA production has shifted to the Anheuser Busch brewery in Baldwinsville, New York.

Without the brewing support from Baldwinsville, the Goose wouldn’t be up over 20 percent in 2012. It also wouldn’t have been able to introduce 312 in cans, a move that Mahoney said was critical in establishing that brand as an illustration of urban living.

“312 exemplifies urban living,” said Mahoney. “The brand has really taken off for us since adding cans. As we bring 312 outside of Chicago, we will position that beer as our lifestyle brand and as an urban beer that is tied in with music.”

While brands like 312 and Honker’s may be driving most of the volume growth, Mahoney said Goose Island hasn’t lost touch with its craft-centric roots and points to its barrel program as an example. Goose Island is adding between 100-400 barrels a month to the program. By the end of the year, it could be the largest in the U.S, with an anticipated total of nearly 3,000 barrels. That should allow the company to continue developing products like Bourbon County Stout, the award-winning beer that keeps the Goose on the cutting edge and the craft purists interested in the Goose.

But the big question for Goose Island and Bud’s future plans for craft lie in that room: right now, Mahoney said, Goose’s future ability to get the Bud network to pay attention to higher-end craft offerings still is limited by the supply chain obstacles and uncertainties that accompany barrel aging programs, no matter what the scale.

“It’s a program that is not only profitable for us, but important to us,” he said. “Where it goes in terms of size we will have to see.”

In that respect, things seem pretty reminiscent of the plight of the independent craft brewer, don’t they?