Touring Goose Island's Barrel-Aging Warehouse

Back in October, I was among this town’s beer writers who got the privilege of touring Goose Island’s new barrel warehouse at 603 N. Sacramento. I also got, of course, a taste of the 2014 Bourbon County Brand Stout and its variants. I’d like to say I held off on offering you this description to spare you the agony of waiting. But truth to tell, I’m just busy with stuff to do that involves salary.

Bourbon County Brand Barley Wine

My tasting tour was led by Eric J. Ponce, the senior brewer of the Barrel Program. He pointed out that the packaging on the 2014 edition proclaims that the Barley Wine is aged in “Third Use” barrels: First to age bourbon, then for Bourbon County Stout, and finally for the Barley Wine. And from there, the barrels go to Scotland, where well-used American barrels are part of Whiskey making. The barley wine tends more to the English version of the style than the hoppy monsters of the West Coast. This one, while still very young, shows a happy medium between hops and malts. It’s ruby in color with bright highlights. It does show a slight bit of oxidation which may smooth out with age. Eric said the beer barrel ages for 8-10 months, and barrels are being tasted every day to determine they are ready for blending and bottling. He noted that When Goose Island was among the first to barrel-age beer in 1992, they used all Jim Beam barrels, which could be had for a minimal price. But with the popularity of the style, demand for used barrels has driven the price up by 50% just within the past two years.

Goose Island employees fill the barrels with beer before its one-year metamorphosis into Bourbon County Stout.

Bourbon County Brand Stout

The base beer for Bourbon County Stout is rather astringent even after a few months in the barrel, as black roasty malt is likely to be. With up to a year of aging, there is time for the beer to draw more “extractives” from the wood to get its complex blend of flavors. There are seven layers of extractives in each stave of a used bourbon barrel, he said, contributing oak, hints of char, vanillin, and more. The climate controls at the ware house are used very minimally, so the beer can expand into the wood during summer temperatures, and contract out again when it’s cold. “That’s what makes the ‘terroir‘ for Bourbon County Stout; our Chicago summers and winters,” Ponce added. Sometime soon, though, there will be a wall dividing the 130,000 square foot space, because the Belgian style beers aging in wine barrels need a steadier environment.

Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout

I did not bring my notes about the makeup of the 2014 Proprietor’s, so I got to guess while I sipped. I got chocolate off the bat; yes, it Did sit on cocoa nibs. Beyond that, hmm, just a bit more sweetness and spice, than more cocoa could not account for. Turns out the Proprietor’s also has Cassia, the southeast Asian cinnamon, canela sugar, and coconut water, and aged in rye barrels. This added up to a slightly lighter mouthfeel for the beer, more like a milk stout with less roast. Very smooth drinking, even though the alcohol is a hefty 14.1%

Bourbon County Coffee Stout

For the past couple of years, the Goose Island brewers have worked in partnership with Intelligentsia Coffee, whose roastery in on the west side of Goose’s brewery building on Fulton Street. Each year’s Coffee Stout uses a different roast and bean combination, and Eric said this year they sampled over 800 different variations before settling on a Zirikana Rwanda bean, roasted to give out a bit more fruitiness.

Unfortunately, they did not samples of the Vanilla Rye available at the time of my visit. This has been the most popular of the Bourbon County variants upon its introduction in 2010, and it returns this year after hiding in Rye Whiskey barrels with Madagascar and Mexican vanilla beans.

As beer fans start to line up to get their bottles of BCS 2014, I can ask, is it worth it? Well, the taste for many beer lovers will be remembered long after that BluRay player someone lined up for at WalMart becomes obsolete.

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