The Clybourn brewpub opened in 1988 and will be torn down, along with buildings that housed a Bed, Bath & Beyond and Patagonia store in favor of a new residential development on the corner of Sheffield and Clybourn. Before the brewpub, Whole Foods and Lululemon didn’t exist. The brewpub’s success paved the way for the transformation for the area, an area once unfortunately described by the LA Times as “Chicago’s Gaza Strip” in a story from 1988.
While the Fulton Market taproom in West Town has overtaken Clybourn in recent years in terms of attention, the brewery — now owned by the multinational conglomerate, AB-InBev, that runs Budweiser — isn’t downsizing. The Clybourn operation will eventually move a few blocks southwest into the complex that houses the Salt Shed music venue.
“The Clybourn Brewpub has etched an indelible mark on both the history of Goose Island Beer Co. and the vibrant, ever-changing tapestry of Chicago,” Goose Island President Todd Ahsmann wrote in a statement. “Clybourn served as the birthplace of Bourbon County Stout, and host to unforgettable events like Stout Fest, numerous Black Fridays, and Block Parties filled with music. It was the nurturing ground for numerous brewers and breweries who have become integral to the food and bev scene in Chicago and beyond.”
Construction is ongoing at the Salt Shed, and Goose Island hasn’t provided an opening timeframe. Over the weekend, workers at the brewpub speculated that the earliest the relocated brewery would debut would be March, but some felt safer in saying early summer.
“We loved being able to share a ‘Last Call’ at Clybourn with so many friends and family last week, and the spirit lives on through our continued innovation and connecting with Chicagoans through music and events — all paving the way for our new chapter,” Ahsmann’s statement also read. “We can’t wait to keep building on that legacy in our new space at the Salt Shed and look forward to new stories, collaborations and making incredible memories.”
Personally, this is a bitter pill to swallow. The Clybourn brewpub was a family gathering point — a casual place for a quality meal with simple food for the pickiest sibling or parent. As a confused teen, this is where my friends gathered on 9/11, trying to make sense of what happened to the Twin Towers. This was where I gained an appreciation for beer, graduating from Beast to Honker’s Ale and eventually became caught in the web of barrel-aged beer mania; where brewers hosted annual Black Friday events as lines queued around the block on Kingsbury Street with customers waiting to secure this year’s allotment from the neighboring Binny’s.
In more recent years, Goose Island was where I told my parents they were becoming grandparents. It might sound trite, but that reliable menu — tacos, nachos, burgers, fish and chips — was yet again one thing we could depend on. Beer was always the focus, there were no aspirations to earn Michelin stars like Band of Bohemia did in 2021 in Ravenswood or how Goose Island alum Jared Rouben aimed for culinary glory with Moody Tongue Beer near McCormick Place. Beer was the priority over food at Goose Island.
Goose grew out of 1800 Clybourn, a shopping center with an aesthetic shared by North Pier and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The development closed in 1993, but the brewpub remained, a sort of incubator for brewery talent. Much like America has outgrown the word “gastropub” in reference to bars with food that defies the once ubiquitous jalapeño poppers and wings, the country’s love affair with “microbreweries’’ has been replaced by the smoother sounding “craft beer.” However, that term seems to be losing steam. The Tribune doesn’t have a beer writer, as Josh Noel departed earlier in 2023. And though beer companies turned profits during the height of the pandemic, the venues formerly known as microbreweries are hurting in Illinois with a reported 10 percent that have closed in 2023.
When AB-InBev bought Goose Island, the company didn’t know what to do with the brewpub. There wasn’t much interest in diving into the restaurant business, and that hurt operations. The brewpub was already being outshined in Chicago by Revolution Brewing and others. Goose Island alum John Laffler, co-owner of Off Color Brewing, opened a taproom down the street from Goose Island that captured a new energy. It didn’t have to prove to Chicago it was a local brand, the kind of explaning Goose has been doing since they were sold. And it didn’t have to worry about maintaining a kitchen or hiring culinary staff.
But AB-InBev suddenly found value in the restaurants, and took over operations in 2016, five years after it had bought the brewery part of the business. They began opening brewpubs in airports and cities like Philadelphia and London. The Clybourn brewpub quickly began to feel like an Applebee’s — albeit an Applebee’s with a great beer menu. No matter how many flags were featured on beer labels, it began to feel less of a Chicago thing, hence the need for Goose Island to brew a flavor of Bourbon County Stout, Proprietor’s, exclusive to the market.
Coinciding with AB-InBev’s decision to buy the brewpub and Greg Hall’s wishes, in 2017 the space was gutted and remodeled. The hope was to bring Goose back into the conversation with the trendier breweries in Chicago. The reaction was mixed: “I don’t know where I am anymore,” my father told me after our first lunch in the rehabbed space.
Perhaps it was just Father Time, but Goose’s connection with Chicago has been ruptured. And this is something that isn’t a closely guarded secret. While the brewery has been kicked out of Sox Park, the company has since forged relationships with the Bulls and Blackhawks, making special beers for both clubs.
Even over the weekend, through 35 years of history, Goose Island’s Lincoln Park exit didn’t make a huge ripple in Chicago. Folks were obsessed with a Bono impersonator at Twin Anchors in nearby Old Town. Metropolitan Brewing in Avondale, overlooking the Chicago River, announced its own closure effective December 17, and there has been more buzz about that brewery’s demise. Unlike Goose, so far there aren’t any plans for a Metropolitan comeback.
Goose announced a special beer, “Last Call” the commemorate the event and held a ticketed farewell dinner, but for a city that loves to talk about restaurants of the past (it’s a lot like baseball fans who like to “remember some guys’’), Goose’s place in history seems forgotten.
I’ve discussed the brewpub’s importance to my family with Greg Hall, Goose’s founder. He was on hand over the weekend for the last call as several former employees paid their respects one last time. The menu was stripped down, and construction equipment has Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out a book by Noel, Greg Hall — privately — for years had said the brewpub needed to close or be remodeled. It was more functional as a beer museum than a restaurant.
My family had one final lunch at the brewpub on Saturday. The host asked “how many kids menus do we need” and rolled his eyes in a manner befitting Daria Morgendorffer. Yes, there were more than a few kids for lunch seated with their flannel-loving parents. It’s to be expected.
One of the staples at Goose Island is the pub chips. The original recipe was a kettle-style chip with barbecue-like seasonings. Each basket was complimentary — the ideal snack to entice beer drinkers to order more. But the policy slowly changed. The first basket was free. I’m not going to estimate the labor it takes to make potato chips, and offer you data points to how inflation has impacted that cost. But on Saturday, I paid $6 for a basket of pub chips. The barbecue seasoning was gone, replaced by a salt and vinegar flavor and some sort of aioli on the side.
Once again, quoting my dad: “I don’t know where I am anymore.”
Maybe, by next summer — with Goose’s revival along the Chicago River, on the actual Goose Island (a manmade island full of geese) locals will flock back.