Nothing embodies the Chicago craft-beer scene more than bourbon barrel aging – it started with Greg Hall at Goose Island nearly a quarter-century ago, and it has evolved, matured, and been celebrated ever since then. The culmination of that movement arrives each November with two events — FoBAB (Festival of Barrel Aged Beer) and the release of Goose Island Beer Company’s Bourbon County Brand Stout (and its variants) on Black Friday.
Last year, 2015, proved to be a less than stellar year for Goose Island’s BCS release because infected barrels provided to them — unknowingly — infected their master, prized creations resulting in recalls, rebates, and public-relation issues. Many ascribe the issues with the barrels a result of Goose Island’s changeover from the once family-owned operation to its current relationship with the giant Anheuser-Busch (AB-InBev) conglomerate. But as Revolution Brewing’s recent major recall of six of its beers demonstrates, it’s not the size of the brewery that matters, it’s the the potency of the microbe.
Road bumps aside, one should never forget that the people doing the brewing, the dedicated grain-soldiers who live and die with each strain of yeast, each hop pellet, and each oak-barrel swell, have no stakes or say in corporate decisions. These brewers, whether they work for Goose Island or the smallest of small-batch brewing operations, are lovers of beer and they work for whomever hires them. Deep in the sweat-laden brewhouses are people with jobs, and people with a passion for beer. For you, the drinker, that means tasting a beer that brewers hope you’ll love. Akin to a chef presenting a meal, a carpenter offering furniture, or a comedian performing a bit – brewers long to create something that pleases those who indulge in his or her creation.
In Chicago, it means something to combine the skillful techniques of brewing with the alchemy that is barrel-aging. Some describe it as luck — and there is certainly some of that, but much like flying a kite that flutters in the wind, the brewer holds the twine and guides the process. The fluctuations are what make the flight beautiful – both with the kite, or found in the pouring of four barrel-aged beers ready to be tasted.
I was lucky enough to partake in one of the first tastes of the 2016 Bourbon Country Brand Stout flight. For some of you, “Prop Day” will arrive, allowing you to be a lucky soul that can grab your hands on a few bottles prior its Black Friday release. For us media folks, there is no bottle to take home. It’s a few tastes and lots of interviews. Like you, I’ll wait for Black Friday — I didn’t win the Prop Day lottery, either.
And what will I be buying? Let’s take a look at each variant, shall we?
Bourbon County Brand Stout (The original).
This year’s version is velvety and the most chocolate-forward version I can ever recall sampling. The carbonation is higher than I had expected, too, which provide the perfect compliment to the sweetness derived from the chocolate notes. In the end, the combination of the chocolate and carbonation prevented it from being too sweet — the chocolate didn’t overpower by any means. The oak represents a supporting player, and the booziness is kept at bay. It’s a gorgeous stout whose softened edges make for a silky sip – flat out delicious.
Bourbon Country Brand Stout Barleywine
Man do I love a barleywine and this did not disappoint. This third-use barrel-aged beer provides a wonderful booziness quality typical of any barleywine — it is essentially a wine, except for the grain. BCBS Barleywine will warm the tongue, the throat, and the belly – not too much, but just enough to wake you up and say “oh yeah…that’s nice.” At the end, there’s a hint of spice that makes you want to go back for a healthy sip — a fantastic addition to an otherwise delicious brew. It’s well-balanced, to say the least, and when coupled with its thin-bodied nature, it easy to drink.
Bourbon County Brand Stout Coffee
I feel as if I must make this statement each month – I do not drink coffee, but for some reason I enjoy it in beer. Yet, because I do not drink coffee, it is rarely my go-to type of beer. So, this is my least favorite, BUT, Bourbon County Stout Coffee is excellent. That should tell you how good it is. When a non-coffee drinker can praise the coffee-forward variant, you know it’s good. And, others around me loved it. The coffee used in this brew is a Costa Rican variety – the Goose Island team traveled to Costa Rica to scout the coffee crop — known as Intelligentsia Flecha Rocha that’s intended to provide a sweet-toffee finish. I’m a bit torn – I felt as if I noticed it more as vanilla, but as toffee and vanilla are often paired together, I think I was being fooled a bit. Nevertheless, the coffee flavors — and strong coffee aroma – and BCBS base (or BCS, if you rather) play together harmoniously. It’s sweet, but the bitterness from the coffee – nothing too much — cuts through it like a knife. Very nice, indeed.
Bourbon Country Brand Stout Proprietor’s (My winner!)
I never thought I’d utter these words as a compliment, but it reminded me of Mexican chocolate cake – spicy and chocolatey. It’s also a little boozy and warming, but mostly it’s downright delicious. I could have had the entire bottle, if not for the ramifications in doing so. Forget just being a good beer, this is a good beverage. The presence of spice hits you on the nose, and continues through the aftertaste, but don’t think this is similar to the gimmicky spicy-beers you’ve probably tasted. Bourbon County Proprietor’s exudes delicate – a gentle hand caressed the spice into this brew.
All in all, a little bit of spice is present through all the variants and chocolate notes are a noticeable player, too. The bourbon-oak notes often sit in the back. I think, partially, after two decades of enjoying bourbon-barrel-aged beers, many of us have become so accustomed to its flavor that it’s less noticeable, much like pale ales of today are similar to IPAs of the day as our collective palates have become immune to hops a tad. Despite that BBA-tone-deaf evolution, it’s there. It may not jump out at you, but it’s there. The BCBS base that has made it good for almost 25 years provides the foundation for a veritable brewers playground – and when brewers come to play, beer drinkers are going to have fun.
Grade: A+ : The balance in this year’s selections may just be the best I’ve ever enjoyed. I think, it is possible, the lessons learned from the issues in 2015 proved to be beneficial. Or, it just could be that the brewers rocked the house this year. Whatever the reason, color me impressed this year.