Where Craft Beer Meets Big Beer, Experimentation Thrives

Among American beer lovers, there’s the common belief that “big beer” is tasteless and uninspired while craft beer is creative, exciting, and delicious. But what happens to the beer when a craft brewer joins forces with a major producer? In this episode of Mastering Innovation on SiriusXM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, Todd Ahsmann and Christina Perozzi, President and Director of Education at Goose Island Beer Co., discuss the advantages of employing a craft approach while leveraging the resources of a large, established company.

An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.


Todd Ahsmann, President, Goose Island Beer Co.

Saikat Chaudhuri: I’m interested in how you guys remain innovative, because when both of you are talking it sounds like there’s this serendipitous creative process that goes on. But I can’t imagine that it’s so chaotic. Is there some structure behind this? What do you do to achieve this innovation, other than drinking beer?

Todd Ahsmann: I’ll answer this one. I guess the closest we can come to structure is making sure we have the right employees. It’s a lifestyle, and our employees live the lifestyle. As soon as we have to put a real hard structure behind it, we don’t have the right people working here. If we’re innovating organically, because it’s coming from employees and authentic stories and happening in real-time, then we’re in good shape. Fortunately, we’ve been doing that and I feel we have the right employees, but it’s my job to give them permission to keep at it. So far, so good.

“If we’re still innovating organically because it’s coming from employees and authentic stories, and happening in real-time, then we’re in good shape.” – Todd Ahsmann

Christina Perozzi: Todd has basically said to me, “Don’t let anyone hold you back.”

Chaudhuri: That’s great leadership. I wanted to follow up on one thing that you guys are talking about here. You went from a smaller, independent firm to becoming part of Anheuser Busch InBev, which is, of course, a behemoth. Can you remain craft, or are you becoming big beer? It sounds like you have a lot of autonomy and pretty much do things on your own.

Christina Perozzi, Director of Education, Goose Island Beer Co.

Ahsmann: People ask me all the time what’s changed since we became part of AB InBev, and I think they expect me to say “nothing,” but a lot has changed. I’ll say that the culture hasn’t changed. But we were given resources to brew our beers at some AB facilities, which really freed up our capacity here in Chicago to start experimenting. I would argue that we became a lot more innovative once we became part of Anheuser Busch.

Chaudhuri: And did it help you scale too?

Ahsmann: Yes. They help us scale when we feel the time is right. For instance, we experiment a lot in Chicago. We have a taproom at the brewery. So, we never had a two-barrel barrel pilot system. We have a 50-barrel system that we use to innovate off of. And that’s one of those situations where you need to fail fast if you’re going to fail. Now, we have a two-barrel system: if it passes that two-barrel system, it goes to a tap deck that employees drink from. If it passes the employee tap deck test, then it goes to our taproom in the brewery, and that’s where consumers come to the brewery. If it passes that, then we decide that we release it in Chicago for a little bit. If it passes that, then we can scale it up, potentially, using one of the Anheuser Busch Breweries.

Chaudhuri: That’s a nice description of a process. I imagine that AB InBev have some expertise here, too. They’ve let you do the creative part, the experimentation part, and help you with the other aspects that are there as well, in terms of resources and the process, which sounds useful. Christina, is there anything else that you’ve observed? Has anything changed in that culture that you were talking about?

Perozzi: When I first started at Goose Island, I came from a very, shall we say, purist standpoint on craft beer versus big beer. And it wasn’t until I came to Goose Island and talked to the brewers, saw the brewing process, saw what people were doing, and talked to the people working there that I realized there isn’t anything different happening here. It’s happening at the other craft breweries that I know. I’m happy to be in a very creative, innovative craft. I would say craft environment, although I don’t really like using craft that much anymore. I use it as a distinction, but I think it’s just good beer now.

Chaudhuri: That’s really good to hear. Now, you guys are clearly doing a great job and then having fun while doing it. Where do you see the challenges with your company, with the industry, going forward? Todd, perhaps we’ll start with you.

Ahsmann: I kind of hinted at it earlier. We’ve always tried to not be ahead of the curve, but create the curve, right? We did that with Bourbon County Stout. Nobody had barrel-aged and bourbon barrels before and now it’s a big category that a lot of breweries around the world participate in. But now, there’s 7,500-plus breweries in the U.S., and any tiff, whiff, or hint of a trend now, it seems like 7,000 of them are doing it overnight. I think it’s a lot. It’s exciting for beer drinkers in the industry, but it’s a lot more challenging to really create the curve or be ahead of the curve now.

Chaudhuri: Do you think that health concerns will also make a comeback, calories and the like, or no? I say make a comeback because that’s what I remember from way back when.

Ahsmann: You know, I think it already has. And craft beer was a little late to it. We just released in Chicago, a low calorie, low alcohol beer. And we didn’t do it out of any insights. This is a perfect example of where innovation comes from. A couple of our ex-brewers were back in town (they don’t live in Chicago anymore) and got together with a couple of our current brewers. On their day off, they brewed a beer. And they were discussing how they have kids now and life is just a little more hectic. They brewed this beer for their lifestyle. And I know there’s insights out there to tell you that, and I heard your previous discussion earlier too, that there’s health and wellness trends. But this came organically. And that sort of tells me that it is a craft beer thing. If our brewers want it, then it probably is something that will translate to our fans.

Chaudhuri: Christina, anything you’re observing on this front?

Perozzi: For me, the challenges are kind of why my position was created. People don’t really even know what beer is, and there are so many of these misconceptions around beer. That it is more alcoholic than other alcohol beverages, that it is more fattening than other beverages, that it’s lower class, that it’s for all of these different things. And so, we really started the education department to educate people about what beer is. What it can be, the ingredients, the culture, and how it can be part of people’s everyday lives. The main thing is trying to get past the preconceptions that a lot of people still have about beer.

About Our Guests

Todd Ahsmann is the president of Goose Island Beer Co. He fell in love with craft beer culture in 1988 as a bartender at Goose Island’s Chicago brewpub. From there he launched a 20 year career in music marketing, but beer was always his first passion; he never stopped offering Goose Island his help on the side (in exchange for beer, of course). Eventually his journey came full circle and he made it back to sweet home Chicago where he has been President of Goose Island for the past year. He’s more excited than ever to bring Goose Island into the future and give Chicago, and the rest of the world, the fine beer it deserves.

Christina Perozzi is the editor-in-chief of Ingrain Magazine and the director of education at Goose Island Beer Co. Named “Best Beer Sommelier in Los Angeles” by Los Angeles Magazine, Christina Perozzi has gained a large following as one of the top female beer experts in the United States. Christina realized her affinity for the beer world while managing the famed beer mecca Father’s Office in Santa Monica, CA. Seeing the need for beer education everywhere, she founded the popular website beerforchicks.com, founded her company The Beer Chicks, and began working as a consultant, beer educator, writer and beer sommelier in.

Find more at @gooseIsland

Mastering Innovation is live on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. ET. Listen to more episodes here.