No matter what you think of Goose Island these days, if you like beer, you’re curious about the 2018 Bourbon County variants.
“Let’s do ’em all.”
Those were the words of Goose Island brewermaster Jared Jankowski, standing in front of a room of beer media, influencers, writers, other brewers and various beer types last week explaining the thought process behind this year’s parade of Bourbon County Stout options.
This year sees the release of eight different Bourbon County stout and barleywine beers, topping last year’s number which makes this the busiest year for BCS collectors ever. It’s also perhaps the most interesting year in terms of questions we have to ask about the lineup: Why coffee barleywine and not coffee stout? Why wheatwine and no regular barleywine? Why is the most interesting beer, Midnight Orange, its own release when this year’s Proprietors is just a metric shitload of chocolate jammed into a barrel?
I don’t have those specific answers here, nor, really do I need them. I assume the answers are a mix of “there’s only so many hours of the day” plus a bit of “we just felt like it.” Which is fine. Goose is gonna do what Goose is gonna do and they’ll sell a ton of beer doing so. So basically, here’s what happened when I tried a bunch of barrel-aged stout and took some notes (all while Goose Island president Todd Ahsmann sat directly to my right and yes, I did catch him peeking at my notes at least once).
This year’s beers come to us after a nap in 4-year Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace barrels, with the exception of Reserve which hung out in barrels which held an award-winning version of Elijah Craig. There are, as every year, winners and losers, though this year doesn’t quite hit the heights of last year, nor the lows of the restrained post-infection outing.
I’ll give you my ranking of all this year’s BCS variants in a bit — but to tell you about them, I’m going to take you through them the same way Goose took us through them, starting with perhaps the most delicate and pure distillation of barrel character ever in a Bourbon County beer, which would be …
Bourbon County Wheatwine:
The first outing for the first new style in the Bourbon County line in years is a winner. And this is from a guy who generally doesn’t even like barleywines … so what made Wheatwine so much fun to sip?
For a beer that’s about 15% ABV, they managed to make a light, clean, sharp, nuanced brew that’s rich with clean caramel and butterscotch flavor but moreover just a symphony of spirit and barrel. Clear notes of vanilla, whiskey and oak in waves on top of a wash of clean wheaty goodness. I genuinely enjoyed this beer at least 5x more than I thought I would. It’s lighter in color, lighter in body but still rich with surprising flavor and just a fun new entry into the world of barrel aging.
(Wheatwine was also the first variant label to emerge from the TTB earlier this year … followed by a parade of labels both real and fake. When I asked about those fake labels after the night’s tasting, a rep told me that all the labels they submitted “were at least considered for production” … but was unable to look me in the eye when making that statement.)
Bourbon County Stout Original:
It’s not so much that the OG is back, per se, as it is that this year’s is a bit of a return to standard status from last year’s relatively wobbly base barrel-aged beer. I still think that the 2016 Original remains my favorite of recent years, that being the flag that Goose had to plant in the year they returned from their BCS infection woes. Then 2017’s was … iffy, and now in 2018 the beer is back to its rich, hearty, balanced, fudgy, chocolatey self that we know and love.
Sometimes you get a little smoke or tobacco from a BCS Original, this year gives you a good dose of lightly roasty stout + spicy bourbon with a touch of raisin as it warms and you should be pretty happy with hit. It’s a down-the-middle barrel aged stout, which shouldn’t be considered an insult since they popularized the style with just such a thing.
I am still seeing plenty of 2017 BCS on store shelves (including run of the mill convenience stores around the North Side of Chicago, should you ever wonder how accessible this beer is year-round in the city) but I would think that ’18 will move quicker.
Bourbon County Reserve:
Here’s what we said about last year’s BCS Knob Creek Reserve: “Big. Bold. Rough. Unrefined….This is old-school stout character where it couldn’t be roasty enough, couldn’t be boozy enough.” This year’s Reserve is not nearly quite so aggressive and suffers accordingly. The more restrained, balanced character of this beer will probably work for most drinkers, but if I’m comparing Reserves (which I kinda have to) I want this beer to be a graduate-level discourse in bourbon-topped insanity paired with an ass-kickingly rough stout.
This year we got a beer that spent a decent stretch of time on 10-11 year Elijah Craig barrels — which was named Whiskey of the Year last year. Did that make the beer better? The brewers spent a lot of time telling us about how great the barrels were, and how great the juice inside them was … and then served up a beer that was smooth, sticky with toffee flavor and an almost berry-like sweetness … that just made me wish for a pour of last year’s. Sorry, guys.
Distro is expected to stick mostly to Chicago and Kentucky, like last year, though some will also likely hit New York as well as perhaps the Philadelphia brewpub location as well.
Bourbon County Midnight Orange:
Now we get into the fun stuff.
Midnight Orange absolutely delivers on the expectations it promises — it is a beer that tastes like chocolate and orange. Actually, let me rephrase — it is a beer that tastes like orange, with chocolate. For the second year in a row, Goose Island has taken on a dangerous fruit-based flavor and made it work. Last year’s banana-y Proprietors remains a truly pleasurable surprise of a beer, while Midnight Orange is pleasing…but not an all star.
If you think it sounds like the Xmas treat you’ve had for years, you’re right — that’s exactly the inspiration that was described to us. The orange flavor walks right up to the level of “industrial cleanser citrus” acidity and just brushes on overwhelming — but doesn’t quite cross over into a flavor that’s irritating, offensive or otherwise bothersome. Even a touch more would have pushed it there, and the underlying chocolate notes could have stood out louder behind the trumpet-blast of Natalina Orange peel and pith.
Brewer Mike Siegel noted that this was not the first year that the orange+chocolate combination was submitted by a Goose employee as a potential variant so props to Quality Lab employee Paul Leavens and brewer Oscar [no last name given per the brewery’s press release] for getting it past the gates this year.
Is orange+chocolate primed for a trend? At this year’s GABF, New Holland was promoting a version of their Dragons Milk that was also infused with orange and chocolate — which I tried knowing full well I’d have the BCS shortly thereafter and it compared very favorably — so all we need is about one more of these and we’ve got a movement.
Bourbon County Coffee Barleywine
WTF, Goose? No traditional barleywine, no beloved coffee stout … but we get a coffee barleywine? This is this year’s Northwoods — you’re going to like it or not; I don’t see anyone truly loving this one. Divisive, interesting, and probably better on paper, coffee barleywine is a huge blast of rough coffee grounds and beans on the nose, green and raw, like tearing off the top of a bucket of Maxwell House and jamming your head right in.
That green, fruity character of the coffee extends on into the flavor itself, in an equally jarring, aggressive manner. Stout and coffee play great for a lot of reasons, pairing roast with roast and contrasting smooth chocolate with zippy espresso — whereas coffee and barleywine just get into the barrel together and beat the shit out of each other until the ref calls a draw and the judges award the match to coffee but only barely.
Jankowski called this “the most scrutinized of the variants” due to the hour-by-hour checking of the brew as it got infused with coffee through a sort of “dry beaning” technique. They put the raw beans on a flow of beer to pull the flavor straight from the bean vs dilute the beer with a cold-brew coffee extract. That gives you the strongest coffee beer I’ve had in quite some time in terms of ABV, but also pure Guatemalan accelerant.
Bourbon County Proprietor’s
It’s a barrel-aged stout with a shitload of chocolate in it. It was … yeah, it was chocolatey.
Bourbon County Vanilla
Hot damn, does Vanilla deliver on aroma alone. Intoxicating to the point of cloying, it’s almost cake-frosting rich in smell and flavor with shredded Madagascar bean in such quantities that Siegel reported that people actually got skin rashes from working with that much ingredient.
If you can get past the vanilla bean bomb lingering in your olfactory receptors and put some of this down, you’ll find a beer that stands up to the vanilla richness to deliver some chocolate, some light roast and a touch of bourbon, all smoothed out by a waterfall of what I imagine would be a tan-and-pearl-white wave of buttercream frosting. You want pastry stout? This is the icing on the cake stout.
Finally, I’ll say this for Vanilla: There were a few empty seats around the room for the tasting, all of which had full pours of each variant sitting there all night. Vanilla was the only variant I saw a staff member sneakily grab away for themselves.
Bourbon County Bramble Rye
Not a lot of subtlety here either — this is BCS blended with berry juice, no more, no less. You like raspberry and blackberry in your stouts? Then you’ll like this one. It’s the thinnest and the lightest beer of the year thanks to the juice dilution, which makes it an easier sipper, but I imagine this is a 500ml bottle best split a couple ways because the acidity builds up on you and the base beer is pretty much washed out.
Fruited stouts are always a bit hit or miss — see Midnight Orange and last year’s bananas-foster Proprietors in the “hit” category, whereas last year’s blueberry-almond Northwoods was a big miss. This year’s berry outing isn’t quite as much of a dud as that one, but it’s on the miss side for me anyways.
The Obligatory 2018 BCS Rankings:
If I had to come back to one beer from this year’s batch, one beer that had me asking questions and wanting more and curious to see what’s going to happen with it: It’d be Wheatwine.
I know. I am pretty damn surprised by that too. Everything else fell to about the middle of the pack to me, but here’s where I think things land.
- Midnight Orange
- Bramble Rye
- Coffee Barleywine
I could honestly re-sort those last three if I came back in an hour and thought about it again — it’s that close. Reserve just doesn’t have enough going on with the spirit focus for me this year, Bramble Rye just isn’t my fruity speed and Coffee Barleywine is just nothing but internal conflict. I appreciate the experimentation of it, but I won’t be coming back to it.
One final thing: If Goose Island offers to make you a stout float with gelato, chocolate whipped cream and original BCS…you say yes. Because wow, was this good:
There you have it – another year of Bourbon County stouts are coming our way in a few weeks. Details on this year’s Proprietors Day have been released and can be found here. For $30, you get the opportunity to purchase two bottles of Prop and one bottle of Vanilla; you also get the obligatory tote bag and plastic snifter glass along with sample pours of this year’s BCS.
As always, thanks to Goose Island for throwing open their doors (of the Clybourn space this year) and letting us take a pass at these beers — they remain the most scrutinized beers of the year and I appreciate their annual willingness to let a bunch of us critics and skeptics come through and give things a go.