…and the eternal question: Is it worth standing in line for?
Last night at Goose Island’s Fulton Avenue taproom, I was one of about a dozen folks invited to sample this year’s vintage of Bourbon County Stout. This year, there are just four Bourbon County brand beers being released: Original, Barleywine, Coffee and Proprietor’s.
Original and Barleywine are nearly nationwide at this point — just a handful of states don’t receive shipments, and mostly due to laws about the maximum ABV allowed there. Ohio, for example, will benefit from the recent changes in their ABV cap with BCBS being available there for the first time. Coffee BCS is a more limited release, and as always, Proprietor’s is for Chicagoans only.
No Regal Rye. No Vanilla. No Rare. No brambleberry, or leather-infused, or peppermint, or whatever. No Scotch-barrel aged.
After last year’s widespread infection issues, which led to massive recalls and tons of outreach on the brewery’s part to try to make things right to BCS buyers, this year’s slightly restrained selection of BCS beers is absolutely a response to that experience, along with a number of other behind the scenes updates. This includes the much-discussed pasteurization process, and partially because of that, this year’s release of BCS will most assuredly be the most dissected, most criticized, most picked-apart series of beers…perhaps ever.
By way of comparison to Goose’s recall, Revolution just pulled 10,000 barrels of beer — that’s more beer than most Illinois breweries make in an entire year — and it was barely a blip on the radar. (Though the Tribune’s editorial board did give them a high five for announcing the recall.) It’s not exactly apples-to-apples when you consider availability — beer fans wait in line for hours for their first access to BCS every year, while you can walk into a 7-11 or a gas station around Chicagoland and pick up Anti-Hero. Still, in terms of “outrage level” to “physical amount of beer pulled,” Goose got whalloped — especially when you consider the amount of effort that went into the 2015 release of Bourbon County Rare.
Go figure, massively scaling up an already-huge barrel program had some speed bumps. And Goose surely paid the price for it. Whether or not that equates to shorter lines on this year’s Black Friday remains to be seen, but I think it’s unlikely — the past five years have seen near-constant shit talk about GI and AB’s association, and every year at events and tastings, folks still line up by the hundreds for a taste of Bourbon County.
It’s still a damn fine beer, and deserves your respect, even if it’s begrudging.
Anyways, this year, rather than ranking them (and because the Trib already did that here), here’s a few bullet points, tasting notes and takeaways from the evening’s event.
This year’s Proprietor’s blend, made with cocoa nibs, dried chipotle peppers and aged in barrels that had previously aged maple syrup, is a fine beer. Even though it’s similar in concept to last year’s Proprietors (made with maple, toasted pecans and guajillo peppers), brewer Emily Kosmal who formulated this year’s recipe equated it to a mix of a nice cigar, paired with a Mexican dark chocolate brownie. The chipotles add a fair amount of heat, but nothing that’s off-putting, and the pepper also adds a very up-front tobacco-y smokiness.
The cocoa nibs play nicely with the peppers and all of it really helps compliment the barrel character, but if you’re on the hunt for any maple characteristics, good luck. The maple syrup barrel might have carried along some of those notes — it was described as more “like a coating” by Kosmal, with some latent sweetness — but they’re so hidden by the other large flavors as to be completely absent. This isn’t a bad thing, speaking as someone who has never found a maple beer I’ve really liked — as I equated it to Kosmal, you definitely want it to be more brownie, less doughnut.
Goose Island is having a special Proprietor’s Day event at the taproom and barrel warehouse — more details here — but if you didn’t sign up to win tickets, you’re outta luck at this point.
Also, if you think you’re going to crack open a beer and “taste pasteurization,” you’re wrong. You can go ahead and talk shit about a process that tons of breweries use to no ill effect, but if you can claim to taste the effects of a brief raising of temperature of a beer, in a hugely malt-forward beer that doesn’t have the same hop sensitivities that for example, a huge IIPA might have in the trunk of a hot car, then you’re a better taster than I.
If you’re swearing off BCS this year just because they’re pasteurizing it, you’re being a dick. Drink the beer and judge it on its own merits, and see what you think. I’ll still bet anyone $5 that you’ll be able to go onto BeerAdvocate on Thanksgiving weekend and see the phrase “pasteurization has ruined this beer” though.
If you’re on the hunt for a hugely roasty, pitch-black cold-brew brutal coffee bomb from this year’s Bourbon County Coffee, you might come away a bit bummed. This year’s vintage has a nice big blast of coffee on the nose, but the Costa Rican variety of coffee they sourced alongside Intelligentsia called Flecha Roja is more fruity, jucier and berrylike than in past years, making for a nuttier, subtle, kinder, gentler BCS Coffee.
(FWIW, I’ll forever be unfairly comparing all future BCS Coffee to this two-year vertical we ran a few years ago, and I can still taste those 2010-2011 versions. Those were just magical.)
It’s definitely a good beer, and not nearly as alcohol-hot as other years have been (a trend through all of this year’s beers, in fact, including the regularly harsh barleywine), and I liked it, from the coffee richness of the beer itself to the slighty syrupy nature of the mouthfeel to the fresh coffee nose to the new complexity from the coffee itself. I floated/asked about the idea of “dry-beaning” the beer the way they treat their Fulton Street Blend coffee pale — since that would take significantly longer for a large stout than for a regular pale, I wouldn’t expect to see it on a wide scale, but with the way they play with these beers, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some experimenting to be done there.
You know what was really great? This year’s Bourbon County Original.
I’ve always been guilty of chasing the adjuncts just as much as anyone else, and Coffee will always be my first love, but damn was this year’s Original nice. Rich, smooth, huge with chocolate and nutty almond and a lighter body than in past years, it’s a really nice beer. A little smoke, a very minimal bourbon finish and oak character throughout, Original was damn good. Not as liquor-y as in years past, and certainly nowhere near as hot with alcohol, which some of you may consider a downside, but I had no complaints.
It’s not a milkshake of a stout, it doesn’t pour like motor oil, you couldn’t spread it with a spatula, and I don’t know if I’d stand in the cold for it, but as a Chicagoan, I generally don’t have to work that hard to find Original anyways. More’s the pleasure for me.
That said, Barleywine is still only rising to the level of “it’s fine” for me. As a noted non-fan of the style, I appreciate how the barrels help round out the flavors and smooth things out, as opposed to your usual stupid-hot and boozy options, and this was certainly a mild and sweet version of the style.
Some other random thoughts and observations:
In addition to the pasteurization process, Goose is revamping their entire process for acquiring barrels. Previously it was through barrel brokers, like pretty much everyone else, just on a larger scale. Now Goose is working with just one distillery source, allowing no re-coopered barrels and random staves to enter the wood-aging process.
Previously, the re-coopered barrels could have been busted open, with staves laying around, and exterior wood coming into contact with interior wood getting god knows what kind of bugs in there. Go figure, an infection occurred. Goose seems solely dedicated to eliminating all variables other than wood that held bourbon in them at some point, to their credit, but who the hell knows what kind of impact that’ll have on flavor. (Update, 10/31: A Goose Island representative confirms that “the majority of this year’s barrels” come from Heaven Hill Distillery, and it’s too early to tell where next year’s barrels are coming from.
I’ve reached out to confirm which distillery is providing the barrels moving forward.)
Random question that I didn’t fully get answered last night: Why doesn’t Goose Island have its own year-round stout? With as vaunted as their BCS line is, you’d think they could sell the hell out of a regular 4-pack of say, Fulton Avenue Stout year-round. My guess is that everything stout-y goes into barrels and since they can charge a heck of a premium for it, why mess with what’s working? But it’s interesting that a brewery that made such amazing other stouts in the past like Big John and Nightstalker would still be 100% full-on BCS and not branch out nearly at all any more.
Also, not a surprise but reminded/re-confirmed for us: Not everything that makes it through the TTB is going to make it to the street for release. This is part of the reason why we don’t go too crazy over every label that crosses our desk (and if you haven’t checked our beer label posts, feel free) but Kosmal did confess to getting a kick out of seeing the forums freak out over every Goose label that crosses their path. Just a reminder for the next time we put up some weird-ass mango-infused tequila-barrel-aged whatever. Not every brewery can afford to take the time to fill out the paperwork and throw a bunch of stuff at the TTB in the hopes that maybe someday they’ll release it, but it must be fun for Goose to have the freedom to do so.
If you think the Fulton Avenue taphouse is way too far from anything to visit, you should know that the Ashland Pink/Green Line stop is about a 5 minute walk from the brewery and you get to pass All Rise on the way. With Great Central and On Tour opening up over by here, drinkers should probably get familiar with this part of the city, and quick.
Okay, screw it — let’s rank them.
As I mentioned above, I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed this year’s Original. It’s just a damn good barrel aged beer. After that, I’ll put Prop and Coffee in a dead heat slightly behind, since my beloved Coffee didn’t completely blow my skirt up while Prop was definitely an above-average adjunct stout. Barleywine brings up the tail end, even though it’s perhaps one of the most accessible barleywines I’ve ever drank, but I’m never going to crave a barleywine the way I hanker for a nice rich stout on a cold day. Your mileage, as always, may vary.
So, finally: Is this beer worth waiting in line for? Is it worth leaving your family after a holiday and camping out in the cold in a parking lot?
Look, I don’t chase whales, so I’m not likely to wake up and stand in line for anything, so take that for what it’s worth. Also, consider the fact that for Chicagoans, we’re ridiculously spoiled. We’ve had world-class barrel-aged stouts available to us for decades — and, in fact, next year marks the 25th anniversary of the first BCS produced.
BCS is a fine beer, and if you want to fight to get your hands on the harder-to-find Proprietors, no one will begrudge you that. Not having other variants like Regal Rye, Vanilla, Rare, and so on make this year’s decision perhaps a little easier for the diehards — I think some of us will take the wait-and-see tactic.
Is it worth the $10-$15 you’ll pay to have it, even in a single serving bottle vs. the bomber or 4pack of years past? Certainly. But I think the world has caught up to what we’ve taken for granted for quite a long time. Chicagoans have been lucky enough to have things like BCS and, to a much more limited extent, Dark Lord in our vicinity for forever. I don’t know if I can get super excited for a barrel-aged stout that’s essentially available nationwide, even if it’s in what counts for a limited release from a nationwide brewery.
But if you see that Original hanging out on a shelf, don’t skip it in favor of some other weird-ass beer. Grab some.