When Jonny Coffman was diagnosed with a devastating cancer, he fueled his body with an unusual new favorite meal: cinnamon-spiced cereal, oatmeal, and mangoes. We sat down with the Goose Island Brand Ambassador to learn more about his battle and the beer, The Lost Palate, that was inspired by his experience. —INGRAIN, Fall/Winter 2019
STORY / Dana Driskill
It’s a warm day in late June in Chicago, and I’m sitting across from a friend, enjoying a beer on the new patio of Goose Island’s Fulton Street taproom. By the looks of him, Jonny Coffman could be your average hipster living in Humboldt Park in Chicago. He’s in his mid-30s, with long blond hair, sleeve tattoos, and a contagious smile nestled inside a full beard.
I’ve known Jonny for three years now. During that time, I’ve watched him transform from a vibrant and healthy, easygoing guy with a charisma that draws in everyone to little more than a hollowed-out face with protruding cheekbones and a body so tired, he could barely stand for an hour at a time. After battling melanoma for four years, somehow he beat impossible odds and has been cancer-free since February of this year.
Dana Driskill: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started working as a Brand Ambassador for Goose Island.
My family moved around a lot when I was younger, but from middle school onward, I grew up in Arlington Heights, a suburb northwest of Chicago. After college, I moved back to the city in 2009 and was juggling my time between Whole Foods, Local Option, and Bangers & Lace before I ended up at Goose Island.
The team pretty much offered me the job on the spot. I played it cool, pretended like I was going to think about it, but right off the bat I knew I was going to take it. I walked out of the brewery and called my old man and was like, “I’m quitting all my jobs!” He was like, “What?! Why?” I told him I was taking a job with Goose Island, and he was stoked. My dad is the BIGGEST fan of Goose Island and craft beer. My mom is, too. If I don’t get her a case of Sofie (a Belgian-style Farmhouse Ale like a Saison) a month, she gets cranky. But now that she’s tried Lost Palate, she says it is her favorite beer. Not her favorite Goose Island beer. Her favorite beer, period.
She’s got great taste.
She was sitting on this patio with my brother a couple weeks ago, and I got them some samples from a trial brew. Gave them a pint each and walked inside to clock out. When I came back, my brother still had his pint three-quarters full and my mom’s was empty. That’s not, “Oh, you’re just pretending to like it.” She loved it.
Does she usually like similar beer styles?
She normally doesn’t like IPAs. I think this beer is different because it doesn’t have the traditional bitter finish that people associate with the style. Generally, craft beer fans know when they see a hazy IPA and the ingredients lactose and oats, they realize this beer won’t be very bitter at all. Instead, it’s sweeter, creamier, palatable, and smooth.
What was it like making this beer?
Originally, Tim Faith [Goose Island’s R&D Brewer] and I brewed a beer called Defiance, and it was just a double IPA [brewed] with all oats and mango. It had a really high ABV, and that initially kicked off the conversation about making a beer, specifically a hazy IPA, based on my experiences with losing my palate while undergoing cancer treatment.
Let’s back up a bit to when you were first diagnosed.
So this all started back on December 1, 2015. The doctors found a stage 3 melanoma lump in my neck. Since then, I’ve gone through two neck dissections, lung surgery, radiation, immunotherapy—and many bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and oatmeal with mangoes over the course of two years.
Things took a turn in December 2017. I had been in the hospital for two weeks prior, and when I got out, I pretty much had to go straight back because I was experiencing pain. My scans showed that the cancer had spread everywhere. I already knew it was in my bones, but it had gone into my bloodstream. And the doctor said I realistically had only three to 12 months remaining. The next day, on December 29, I went and saw a separate doctor at a different hospital, and they said the exact same thing. So I slowly told a couple family members, which was brutal. I couldn’t even tell my mom. My dad had to do that for me. I just couldn’t look her in the eyes.
Wow, that must have been so hard.
After the holidays, I came to Goose Island in early January and sat down with our taproom managers and hospitality team. I said, “Hey listen, if this is the case and these doctors are right, I’m leaving. If that means you guys are going to fire me or let me go, I understand. But I gotta go see the world and spend time with family and loved ones because I don’t know how much time I have.” And they were amazing about it and very understanding and told me to take all the time I needed. It was an emotional conversation right here in the taproom. So then I said goodbye and started traveling.
What were the options for treatment at that point?
My head oncologist, Dr. Sunandana Chandra [at Northwestern University’s Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center], suggested that I should start an experimental drug trial with Keytruda, which would give me a small chance of making it past 12 months despite what others were saying. She never told me how small the chance was until after I was treated, but it was just 8%. I started treatment in January, and I’d go in for infusions every three weeks.
When I was in the hospital, I was always in a room with a needle in my arm with someone who was usually twice my age or half my age. I was always trying to crack jokes and liven up the scene because it’s a sad room on the 21st floor of the Galter Pavilion. I think that’s how I got to be known by most of the nurses because I would always try to come in and crack dad jokes.
Good for you.
So during this time, I had a really serious conversation with people here at Goose that pretty much went along the lines of, “Some people want a tombstone. l want a beer.” My doctors were asking if I had a will, and people here understood what I wanted. Todd Ahsmann (Goose Island’s President] and Keith Gabbett [Brewmaster] were fully on board with helping me brew a beer.
When Todd asked me what style we were going to brew, I was so panicked. All I could think was, “Oh God, no one’s gonna want to hear what I have to say.” I’m looking at Keith and Todd and Jared Jankowski [Goose Island's former Brewmaster] and Mike Siegel [R&D Manager], who are such beer purists and pretty much abide to the Reinheitsgebot.
WHEN I TOLD THEM I WANTED TO BREW A HAZY IPA WITH MANGOES AND CINNAMON AND LACTOSE AND OATS, THEY JUST LOOKED AGHAST.
Mike had this tortured look, Keith couldn’t even make eye contact with me, but Todd was sitting there smiling and nodding like, “All right.” He looked at the guys and told them this is what we’re doing.
And this flavor combination had to do with losing the ability to discern flavor?
Yeah. When they told me about the side effects of radiation, all I cared about was losing my hair. I never even considered how awful it would be to lose my palate. The first week of radiation went by and I felt fine, but the side effects of radiation take seven days to kick in. All of a sudden, I couldn’t grow any facial hair or any hair on the left side of my head. I was like Two-Face from Batman: one side was fine and the other was barren.
The palate kicked in late. I was almost done with radiation, and it just disappeared. Everything became cement. It was four months of pure cement and a lot of weight loss. When everything tastes like cement and your mouth is beat up so it hurts to eat, you end up with oatmeal and soggy mangoes and apple sauce. I was basically eating what your average 80- or 90-year-old would eat. Just whatever was easy to digest.
That must have been so difficult.
The doctors kept trying to give me hope and telling me to try different things. So every day I’d play around with different [flavor] combos. Some sweet, some savory, but mostly sweet. The doctors said either savory was going to come back or sweet would. I’d find one of them first.
One morning, I poured out some Cinnamon Toast Crunch, along with oats and mangoes. I topped it with some honey, which is why we have honey malt in the beer. And suddenly, I could taste it all: the mangoes, the cinnamon. The texture was amazing, it was easy to eat. It was just lovely. It became my breakfast, lunch, and dinner, however long I could handle it. I mean, there were still days that I didn’t want to eat much, but the days that I did, that’s how I would trick myself. I still tried other flavor combos, too.
Do you remember any other combinations in particular?
So I realized coconut was really good with the mango. I really liked vanilla, too, but what stood out to me was the mango and cinnamon. The next fruit I regained was strawberries. If we do another version of Lost Palate, I want it to include strawberries.
That’d be cool. With strawberries and vanilla, it would almost be like a hazy Gillian.
Yeah. Or do a chocolate coconut hazy IPA and blow people’s minds.
And use Cocoa Puffs or something like that!
That would rule. But yeah, the mango is so key to the beer. If there were more variants in the future, we would definitely want to have that hazy mango lactose beer, for sure. Then we can play around with other ingredients.
How does it feel now that the Lost Palate has made it through the taproom trials and you’re holding the finished product in a can?
There are so many feelings. I’m excited, nervous, always wondering what’s going to happen, what’s going to be the next step. Mainly, I’m just looking forward to the release, when people can take home four-packs and drink it, and go online and talk about it. I’m excited and a little scared to see what they have to say.
You once told me that 2019 is the year that you do it all.
It’s really gone from traveling everywhere to dialing it down now that I’m healthy. I wanted to regain some normalcy. I’ve gotten back into skateboarding. I’m so thrilled because skateboarding means so much to me. It’s my favorite form of meditation and exercise. And I’ve gotten back into snowboarding. I forgot what it felt like to be carving down the side of a mountain. Mostly, though, what I’m really looking forward to after the release is heading back to my annual family reunion in Ohio. I get to share this beer with my entire family. Oh, and an important note: I’ve been cancer-free since February 13, 2019.
They freaking did it.
No, YOU did it. It’s incredible.
But I couldn’t have done it without all my friends coming out, all the homies coming out to the 5K walks, the Goose Island “Fuck Cancer” Chili Cook-Off that raised $7,000 for my hospital bills. The love I’ve received since I was hired and since I was diagnosed has been amazing. I can’t even put it into words, it’s incomparable.
It’s a great community of people here, and you’re so integral to it. I remember when I was still new at Goose, and you invited me to a Twin Peaks concert with your friends without a second thought. I always really appreciated that gesture of kindness.
I love making new friends. If I meet someone who’s a positive, fun person, I’m compelled to bring them into the fold and say, “Come join us, look at what we do because I bet you’ll love it.” And when you started, I was like, “Oh, she would totally love this.”
This group definitely tries to bring out the best in one another.
Yeah, people here like to have fun. And from the outside, I know people are skeptical because we’re a big brewery and you can find our beer pretty much anywhere. But realistically, we’re a tight family here on Fulton Street. Everyone knows each other, and we love to have a good time and also rag on each other because that’s what friends do. And you gotta stay young. It helps, because cancer lives off stress.
So the way I’ve tried to live my life, especially the last couple years, is to wake up every day and figure out how can today be as stress-free as possible. Because I don’t want it to come back. Five years seems to be the magic number where it just seems to not come back. So I’m on that path now. And so is my mom. She just celebrated her nine-month anniversary of being in remission [from ovarian cancer]. I’m now five months in remission [at the time this magazine went to print].
We’re all rooting for you both.
Thank you. Can I pick my ending for this interview? I want to say, “Don't worry, be happy, just send it.”
New England–style IPAs (also called East Coast IPAs) have a hazy appearance and signature juiciness. (They are significantly fruitier and less bitter than their West Coast IPA cousins.) That juicy quality makes them the perfect backdrop for offbeat flavors, like the Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, mangoes, oats, and honey malt used to brew Goose Island’s new limited-release IPA. “It’s a beer that pays tribute to the flavors that were never lost,” says Jonny Coffman.
The proceeds from the pilot batch of Lost Palate were donated to the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center to support cancer research. Available seasonally from Goose Island Beer Co.
Hops curious? Check out our in-depth IPA and DIPA (Double IPA) history and style breakdown.