Each year, we sit down for a spin through some of the most sought-after beers in the world. Literally! The world.
(And Bourbon County Stout Original.)
Goose Island’s party, Goose Island’s rules.
That’s the main takeaway from this year’s tasting event. Goose’s rules. Goose’s invite list. More than the quality of this year’s beers. More than the quantity of barrel-focused offerings, more than the continued existence of the Goose Clybourn brewpub bar. Their dime, their dance floor.
As we learned recently, the room full of beer media types, journalists, marketing team members and other various was short one individual that’s usually on hand for these types of things — Chicago Tribune’s beer writer, Josh Noel. At the time we figured that he had already taken a swing at the beers and would be posting his piece bright and early the morning after the rest of us had a chance to try ’em.
But no! Goose decided that Noel was persona non grata this year, for a variety of reasons that were all documented on Twitter relating to his coverage about the brewery and their parent, Anheuser-Busch. Basically, some people there were tired of his reporting on their business, and didn’t want him to have the access that he’d previously been privy to.
(He already got some of those beers anyways, thanks to Prop Day.)
Part of the reason that Goose Island has the success that it does with BCS (in our biased opinion) is the way that no matter who’s the president, no matter who’s the PR company working with them that year — they’ve built and maintained a solid drumbeat of press for every release over the last half decade.
You don’t see that with, say, Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout (and, if you’ve noticed, they’re taking that beer year ’round instead of keeping it a limited release in the style of Bourbon County). A little more on that later.
We acknowledge our part in the drumbeat. The Chicago beer media community is particularly strong compared to other parts of the country that have well-established brewing scenes. As such, there are many more people available to help tell the story of each year’s BCS — and we have participated each year going back to 2014. You don’t have this bench of beer-media types in, say, Grand Rapids or Milwaukee.
Access is part of the privilege of keeping at this year over year. And we can’t not acknowledge that adding to Goose’s earned media helps them sell beer. We’ve turned down this access before when it started to feel a little too excessive or if it didn’t seem to add anything to our Midwest-based coverage. There are lots of beer writers in Chicago and beyond who can tell you all about the trip that Goose sent them on to their hop farms in Idaho and the dinners that Stephanie Izard cooked them out amongst the hop bines and the Wilco concert out there. We’re not among them.
So…you ask…will we still attend these things if offered? …Yeah, probably. Each year, Bourbon County is news. (Bit of a tautology — it’s become news, because of the role we all play in making it news, snake eating its own tail, etc.) So unless the brewery comes out with a parade of BCS Greatest Hits that we’ve already had in the past, there’s probably something there worth trying and writing about.
But: Is this more of a reason to reaffirm our focus on other, smaller breweries that don’t have the budget to put together tastings like these? It sure is! And we’ll continue to try to do that as best we can. We’re writing for advertising peanuts over here and we’ve got jobs and shit. Either way, we owe you a bunch of other stories about other beers — barrel aged or not — and other Chicago area breweries. Keep ’em peeled.
Anyways, here’s what we thought about Bourbon County Stout 2019.
One of my surprise favorites last year, Goose took what worked initially and amped things up what feels like about 20% this year. That said, brewer Mike Siegel said that he thought Wheatwine “allows the most bourbon expression” which I didn’t necessarily experience as you’ll see once we move into the more barrel-focused stouts.
Crazy rich with a big creamy mouthfeel, this is definitely sweeter than last year and only a little bit boozier. Wheatwine 2019 is awash with burnt-sugar flavors: toffee, butterscotch, caramel, toasted marshmallow. Oh, and throw in a good hunk of vanilla and maple for good measure.
Only caveat to this one: I came back to it after a few of the more barrel-forward offerings and my palate was not prepared for the comparatively massive sweetness here. Sip on its own.
Look, I don’t know what else to tell you about Original. It’s the same beer every year. Greg Hall made this a long time ago (exactly how long ago depends who you ask), it changed craft beer forever, etc. etc. etc. You’re reading this so you’ve probably tried it. This one tasted like that one you already had, probably.
Now we get into the real focus of the 2019 Bourbon County releases — a variety of beers showcasing the different barrels and bourbons that can transform a stout into something worthy of being called Bourbon County.
Reserve Rye rested in Rittenhouse (how many r-words can we roll into this sentence?) and rolled out a bit lighter in body, brighter and spicier in flavor and maybe even a bit sharper. I get notes of licorice, anise, and even a touch of spearmint to the beer — and it’s worth noting that they also used barrels with “extra char” compared to regular bourbon barrels.
It’s a fine beer, but I wonder — will people understand the difference between this and a regular BCS, without putting them side by side?
I think pretty much everyone in the room agreed that 2-Year Reserve found the sweet spot between “not bourbon-y enough” and “holy shit that’s bourbon-y.” Goose let this chill out in 25th Anniversary Knob Creek barrels for two years (hence the name) and it turns out to be the happiest marriage of “pushing beyond OG stout” and “not blowing out the margins with booziness.”
I think this one’s going to be the sleeper hit of the year — most everyone will probably gravitate to the rarity of Double Barrel, the spiciness of the Reserve Rye and the flavor of Prop (scroll down for more on that) but if I had to spend $20 on one of these it’d probably be thins one.
Up until now the barrel experimentation had been stepping up in smaller degrees each time. Double Barrel upped the ante exponentially.
Holy hell, this one brings the heat. That top “11” on the bottle refers to the 11-year-old Elijah Craig bourbon barrel that first cradled this beer but if you want to make a Spinal Tap reference here it’s fully warranted.
Double Barrel brings some big, raw, hot, rich flavors with a sharp boozy singe to the palate. I got notes of tobacco, fig, raisins, blackberry and leather as I let it warm — this is definitely a sipper, if not one to split between 2-3 like-minded beer friends.
During the tasting portion brewer Mike Siegel noted that for the second barrel they used a much fresher barrel which still contained a good amount of bourbon knocking around in the wood, which certainly expressed itself into the beer.
I expect this beer to end up on a “beers to buy the bourbon lover in your life even if they don’t like beer” story or three because we live in a listicle world and I might already be pitching that story. Ahem.
Also, at 18% ABV this is the strongest BCS ever bottled. Good to know for the handful of folks who’ll be able to get their hands on this:
Sadly, Goose noted that most of y’all will never get to taste this one as it’s in extremely limited quantities this year. Though to be fair, “limited quantities” for Goose Island is probably more beer than the total yearly outup of half of America’s breweries anyways.
Also, sweet container … tube thing. Lookin’ good, Double Barrel.
After last years “None More Chocolate” version of Proprietor’s, safe to say my expectations were sufficiently lowered for another year of chocolate, plus some nuts, plus some vanilla, plus some coconut — just another candy bar stout, right?
This year’s Prop is far and away improved over last year’s offering, not due to any excessive nuttiness in the beer (though I do enjoy pecans — bet they’d go well in a wheatwine, hint hint) but a striking balance of all three that draws out some deliciously rich and complex chocolate — at turns hot cocoa, then dark bakers chocolate, then a bit of milk chocolate syrup and finally a bit of vanilla sweetness.
If you’re on the hunt for big coconut or pecan flavor, don’t bother — they’re the support structure for a larger barrage of flavor. Happy to say that Prop is back.
Safe to say this was my personal most anticipated variant heading into the tasting and I was left pretty nonplussed. Slightly plussed? A little less than plussed? This is the “cherry pie” variant of BCS this year, which is a play on words (“my cherry” / “my darling”) and the 20,000 lbs. of tart cherries they blended into this beer definitely come through with a hearty, sticky but not cough-syrupy ribbon of juice under the base stout. I also got some deeply sweet, dark fig and cola notes floating through there as well.
On top of that is supposed to be the oats and granola they added in to create the “pie crust” portion of the beer, and if you can find it — or the oatmeal cookie flavor extract also added — your palate is better than mine. The beer apparently sat on nearly four tons of added grains that the Goose team called “granola mountain” which is at least a funny thing to think about.
Mostly it tasted like “Dr. Pepper Bourbon County Stout” and if that rings your bell, then give this one a shot.
Cafe de Olla:
Given the ingredients and the name you might be surprised to find that the true inspiration from this beer came not from some far-flung corner of South America but (according to the Goose brewers leading the tasting at least) from a place called Chuck’s BBQ in Darien, where yes — you can get a Cafe de Olla pressed coffee for $5.49.
Exotic! And I like the idea here. That said, despite how much I liked Midnight Orange last year, I didn’t find the cocoa/orange mix from last year with some coffee and cinnamon on top of it to be terribly compelling. There’s a little bite of citrus aroma on the nose, and the flavor is complex and surprisingly balanced even if I didn’t love the overall end product.
Sadly, this is the only BCS that has any coffee added to it — once again, sourced from Intelligencia and skewing towards the green, raw side of the coffee bean spectrum. If you really need a BA coffee stout from Goose Island no matter what it is, this might scratch the itch, but otherwise I’d recommend you just make some cold brew and blend it in with some OG. Probably cheaper too.
Some other takeaways:
I asked Goose Island president Todd Ahsmann if they’d ever consider taking Bourbon County OG year-round a la Founders KBS. Ahsmann looked at me as though I were a special brand of idiot and asked in a semi-facetious way, “Why the hell would I want to do that?”
He did go on to note that demand for BCS remains extremely high and they don’t want to do anything to temper that — and given the global reach of Goose these days, they have more markets to get this to than just American store shelves. Also per Ahsmann: “I could sell out Bourbon County Original in five minutes in Asia.”
Ahsmann also said the Barrel Library, the site of that evening’s tasting, was designed to be “a mix between Cantillon and a Chicago subway.” (Having been to Cantillon, I’d say it’s definitely much closer to the subway side of things.)
Finally, Ahsmann’s real passion project this year seems to be the Vertical Collection — a three-pack of BCS OG from 2017, 2018 and this year. “It was really hard to hold beer back,” he explained,” but we did it, and we’re going to continue to do it.”
“We’re trying to bring more people into beer,” Ahsmann explained about the project, and I think if you can crack this open with a few friends and taste through some different flavors of beer as it ages and develops, you’ll find it as educational as we have throughout the years.
Okay, I know we can’t let this whole thing go without listing these out in terms of preference so here’s how I’d line these up:
- 2-Year Reserve
- Double Barrel
- Reserve Rye
- TIE: Cafe de Olla & Mon Cheri
So to sum up: Icing out journalists isn’t cool. The variants are largely just okay, the barrel-focused versions are all different versions of boozy, and the bar from Clybourn still exists.
Maybe we’ll see you next year! Or not! Our invitation might get lost in the mail. Time will tell.