This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Tom White.
LINCOLN PARK, CHICAGO
Chicago is a brewer’s kind of town. The city’s history is chock full of beer, dating back to the 19th century, persisting through the dark days of Prohibition, and finally to the near constant industry expansion we see today. If you define, as most do, the “modern” craft beer movement as beginning sometime in the late 1980’s, there’s an unquestioned name that pioneered the local movement during an otherwise miserable time for craft beer in Chicago.
That name is Goose Island, founded in 1988 by John Hall. With over 60 breweries, either open or planned, now gracing our Chicago city brewery map, Goose Island is by far the oldest consistently operating brewery. Always willing to adapt to an ever evolving industry, perhaps the biggest change to the famous Goose Island brand came in 2011 with the much publicized sale to Annheuser-Busch.
Often overlooked amidst the media frenzy surrounding the sale was what wasn’t included. Goose Island Clybourn, and its sister location in Wrigleyville, are completely independent and still owned by John Hall. Today they operate as entirely separate companies from the better known Fulton Street location and, as we found out, share very little with their big brother to the south.
Jacob Sembrano and Jon Naghski are the brew team at Goose Island Brewpubs and are the latest brewers of what is, perhaps, the most impressive brewing legacy in the Midwest. We sat down with them to hear what it’s like to be the little guy under a giant brand and how they’re leaving their mark on this Chicago brewing landmark.
Cheers guys, thanks for having us. There’s so much brewing history between these walls. How long have you been at it here?
Jacob Sembrano: I’ve been here for about five years.
Jon Naghski: A couple months over three years.
And it’s just you two holding down the fort here?
JN: Yeah, it’s just us at the moment though there have been others over the last four years.
So what’s your brewing background? Were you in the industry elsewhere before coming to Clybourn?
JS: No, I started here as a brewer. Before brewing, I was in a culinary background. I worked in some restaurants in Austin, Texas which is where I’m from. I worked at The Bristol in Bucktown. Actually, how I got exposed to this place was through The Bristol. Jared Roubon, now the headbrewer at Moody Tongue, was the headbrewer here at the time. He was doing chef collaborations and he brought in our kitchen. I really enjoyed it and just kind of hounded Jared. I really wanted to be involved in brewing and eventually got hired here.
Did you homebrew at all?
JS: Nope, I’ve never homebrewed.
Whoa, you must be one of the few headbrewers who’s never homebrewed.
JS: Yea, definitely a different path taken for me. With no professional brewing experience, no formal education, no homebrewing experience. It was just, “Hey, let me try something new.” I really dove into it.
Jon, what about you? Any brewing experience on your end?
JN: I was the assistant manager at Erehwon Mountain Outfitters, selling North Face jackets to Lincoln Park.
Wow, that’s not quite brewing either!
JN: No, I had no formal brewing experience either. I’ve homebrewed twice. It was undrinkable though.
Do you each remember your first batches then? You must have had someone looking over you in those early days.
JS: Oh yeah, at that time it was Jared. The first couple of batches were always watched over through every step of the process until he felt like I was responsible and knowledgeable enough to be able to take it and run with it. I think my first real recipe here was pretty boring. A wheat ale, dry hopped with Saaz. Sure, it tasted ok, but it wasn’t the most adventurous beer.
Jon, what do you remember from your first?
JN: The first one I remember brewing by myself might have been an ESB, about 2.5 years ago. It turned out well. My first recipe of my own was our Cermak Pils. It’s gone through some changes down the road. It started as an all Saaz Pilsner. It went over really well.
Sounds like you have a lot of creative freedom here, despite being under the huge Goose Island brand name.
JS: Yeah, some people are familiar with Goose Island but don’t really know us. Very few people know there’s an actual Goose Island brewpub that’s been open for 27 years.
How do you come up with these unique recipes having not had prior experience with them?
JS: The transition from cooking to brewing was pretty effortless for me. It was understanding your ingredients and manipulating your ingredients respectfully. What works, what doesn’t work? Inspiration for the beers we do are all around us. What are others doing in the city? There have been a lot of beers that I’ve really liked that other brewers have done. You want to take it, run with it, and put your own spin on it. There have been a lot of things we’ve done that have been motivated by seasons and things around us.
JN: I feel like sometimes you just have a taste for something and you can’t find it. So you try to come up with something that’s going to meet that taste.
JS: You also have to keep in consideration that we’re coming up with a minimum of 52 beers per year; at least one beer a week. So you think about all the hops we’ve used, all the malts we’ve used, and all the fruit we’ve used. You get pretty comfortable with the idea of using a lot of different things and learning them quickly. In terms of the anatomy of a recipe, breaking it down, what’s going work, what won’t.
JN: Looking at the science that’s being provided to you by hop farms and maltsters, telling you whats the chemical makeup, what they have done to manipulate the raw ingredients – it will slowly give you and idea of what it will build into for a final flavor.
JS: And we have this very sloppy catalog of recipes that go back to almost 15 years ago. It’s cool to flip through there to see what that brewer was thinking at the time and what ingredients he was using.
JN: Regulars will say, “I had this ten years ago and I really loved it. Why don’t you make it again?” Well, we can try! Last fall we brought back Demolition after the brewing and bottling had been discontinued at our production plant. People seemed really excited about it. Everyone had a story to tell about some time they got drunk drinking Demolition.
You hinted at the incredible 27 years of history in this place. Now that you’re completely separate from Fulton & Wood, how do you feel you fit in the overall scheme of the bigger Goose Island picture?
JS: That’s a good question and it’s kind of an interesting one. I think that might be one thing that the pub has always struggled with. Because of the success of the brand, people come here expecting 312, Honkers, IPA, Matilda, the sours, and Bourbon County. But once they realize what we do here and why this is significant in the whole grand scheme of things at Goose Island, they start to realize a little bit more. At the heart and soul of every brewpub is creativity and not having to commit yourself to brewing the same thing consistently. Everytime we come in here there’s always something new. We’re always doing special tappings of really small batch things. I think that’s where we fit into this whole thing.
This place has such a decorated history of really great brewers. I think the success of this is because of the talent that’s worked here over the last 27 years. And even brewers with not a lot of experience, like Jon and myself, have grown with this place and keep it really fresh and interesting. This place has been really great at motivating creativity and I think it goes back to not having to do the same thing over and over again. The forever evolving menu is really the heart and soul of what this place is.
Can you speak to what the atmosphere was like during the AB sale?
JS: Nobody knew exactly how things were going to check out, especially on Fulton’s end. Their brewers, some of their employees who weren’t really consulted on the matter, it was kind of strange for them. We were told why it was happening because we’re really on the front line for defending the brand. I think we had it good here though because our defense was always that we weren’t included in this.
What’s your connection to Fulton & Wood nowadays?
JS: We use each other as resources… well mainly we use them as a resource. They’ve got a great lab and endless supply of ale yeast. All the ales we’ve brewed here, we’ve used their ale yeast. A lot of their brewers are pretty good friends of ours. We have a good relationship. One of our former brewers is now brewing over there in the brewhouse. When you put us and their brewers in the same room, we all work well together.
JN: Yeah, it’s all very friendly, but then again so is the Chicago Craft beer scene.
JS: I’d like to say there’s a little bit of competition though.
JN: Oh yeah, I wasn’t excited about them winning Stout Fest!
JS: It’s a back and forth at FOBAB every year when they’re winning awards and then we’re winning the following year in their category. They’re gonna do what they do and do it incredibly well.
JN: Jared, the old headbrewer here used to say, “When you go to festivals, bring the biggest guns you have.”
You don’t see that enough from the big guys. Be honest, do you get sick of questions about you versus Goose Island?
JS: Actually it doesn’t happen that often.
JN: I haven’t done public tours in a while, so I haven’t had that question in a while.
JS: Yeah, and public tours are a thing where you get people from out of town who come here and think it’s where 312 and Bourbon County are made. That’s when you have to get into detail about the difference.
The brewery itself practically seeps brewing history. I don’t think we’ve ever seen another space like it in Chicago. What do you like about the brewery and what challenges does it present?
JS: It’s an old Turtle Wax factory. It is old.
JN: We have the original equipment. The original brewhouse. We do have cooling issues in the summer because we have an undersized chiller.
JS: The fermentors still work great though.
JN: Yeah, they’re really workhorses. We haven’t had any problems with them.
JS: The design of it is… we’ve managed to make it work really well for us. I really like how open it is. This brewery could be much smaller. This ladder up to the second floor gets a little tiresome when you’re up and down it.
JN: We haven’t fallen yet though and much larger brewers have worked here! When you’re carrying stuff up there though, that gets pretty tiring.
JS: Drainage here is a pain in the ass. We have no trench drains, just an old sewer. We had to learn how to fix a sump pump. The steel on these tanks though… when they were manufactured in 1987, there weren’t a lot of manufacturers making 20 or 10 barrel fermentors. The steel on these tanks is incredibly thick, which is great, because for being 27 years old, there isn’t even a hairline crack in these things. One of our kettles that we use every single day, from hot to cold, just now got it’s first hairline crack. It’s a great sign that its lasted this long, but it’s been 27 years, what would you expect?
It’s hard to imagine how many great beers have passed through this system over the years. Speaking off the past, Goose Island has an unrivaled tree of former brewers around the country. Are you able to stay in contact with any of them?
JS: Yes and no. Just by proximity usually. Will Turner is the head brewer at the Revolution brewpub and we reach out to him quite often.
JN: Yeah, he brewed here for almost nine years.
JS: We’ll reach out to him if we have questions we can’t answer.
JN: He’s the king of making a small beer, as far as Chicago brewers go. When we made a small beer last year, we ran by how he did it when he was here.
We were happy to see the Wrigleyville location back at it this year. Are they brewing over there or is that all you?
JS: It’s us. We’re not actively brewing there. The brewhouse is still for sale. When we closed it, we put the brewhouse for sale and we’re still trying to sell it. But we were brewing there a lot before it reopened. A lot of those beers we would serve both here and there. As of right now, the idea to just have that place open for one more season – this season.
We read that you brought back Wrigley staple Cubby Blue?
JS: Yeah, we’re brewing it here for Wrigley. Our only responsibility there right now is draft maintenance and making sure they don’t run out of beer.
That sounds like a pain in the ass for you guys, being such a small team.
JS: I’d rather keep it the way it is. When we brewed in both places, we had four people and had to split time between the two. Now it’s just the two of us here, nice and easy. Since Goose Wrigley and Clybourn are still owned by the same person, our managers and employees go back and forth between the two. It’s still kind of an auxiliary of Clybourn. It’s been that way, going back ten years.
Do you feel there’s hope for the future of Goose Island Wrigleyville?
JS: It’s hard to say. I think the issue with that place being open longterm is not knowing the outcome of the grand plans they want to turn that block into, which is basically demolishing it. Why would we want to invest into a place where there’s no certainty?
Five years ago, the Chicago craft scene was basically you and a few other breweries. Now there are nearly a hundred. Where do you see yourself five years from now. Do you see it staying small in here?
JS: Yeah, I don’t think the dynamic of this place will change. I think the beers will change depending on where the headbrewer at the time wants to take it. But I see this place as being pretty straightforward and consistent, like it is now.
Any plans to expand that Goose Island tree and start your own place?
JS: Personally, ever since I started brewing I’ve thought to myself, I don’t think I’d ever want to own a brewery.
JN: It’s really fun to spend someone else’s money! I really enjoy working here right now. I enjoy this system, though granted it’s the only one I know. I enjoy this place, I think it’s a good vehicle to hone your chops. Maybe I’ll just be a house husband and do a couple bottle releases a year.
So what are you drinking after a long day of work at the brewery?
JN: Maybe some Sierra Mist.? No, I’ve got a barrel aged Temperance Might Meets Right in there right now. I hate to say it but my go-to is Yuengling. My wife is from Dayton, Ohio so whenever she goes home she gets some. I grew up on that. It was the first beer I ever stole from my uncles.
JS: There’s a couple of wax dipped bottles that we’ve done here that are still collecting dust in our fridge. I’ve got a bottle of Cthulhu that’s been in there for two years. My girlfriend works here too and in our fridge we have a lot of Off Color – Apex Predator, Troublesome, Scurry. I’ve been drinking a lot of Revolution Fist City and some Firestone Easy Jack.
Solid brews there. What about when you’re out at the bar?
JN: I’ve been drinking a lot of Fist City recently but we’re at a place that has a lot of craft beer, I try to drink something that’s made close that I haven’t had before. One of my go-to bars is Maria’s down in Bridgeport. They always have something on that I’ve never had.
JS: Spiteful Pigeon Porter, the regular one. The variations are delicious too. Chicago is a great beer city now, and the caliber is pretty high. Then again, the caliber can be pretty low as well. There are some things flying out there that probably shouldn’t fly. But there’s a lot of experimentation and creativity out there which is great.
Photography by Melinda Jane Myers
Thanks to Jacob and Jon for having us into the brewery and opening up their cellar for us to sample some truly fantastic and unique brews. Keep an eye on the Goose Island Clybourn Facebook page for their weekly releases.