Photo: Mathew Powers, Chicago Now
To begin, a music analogy. Most craft beer releases are like a small-label drop party on a Thursday night. Or an indie band with a niche following posting their new album on Spotify. Sometimes, of course, one of these barely-covered releases gains traction. Word of mouth spurs downloads, bloggers hype it. It’s a thing! Others fizzle.
On the other hand, some beer releases are like Lemonade or Blonde. Eagerly awaited, endlessly theorized about. They come from established, consistent brewers. They involve widely popular styles and exciting ingredients. People are ready when these beers drop. They line up to secure them and post their hot takes immediately.
The granddaddy of this bunch – the one truly nationwide beer release event – is Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout series.
A National Event
Released nationwide on Black Friday every year, this gargantuan barrel-aged stout has a devoted, ever-expanding following. The standard BCBS is a testament to chocolate malt and baroque bourbon. Its variant with Intelligentsia coffee is a reverie of dark roast and cordial crème. Then there’s the barleywine, a rich fruity concoction reminiscent of madeira. And that’s not even mentioning the rye-barrel one-offs, or the Chicago-only Proprietor’s blends.
As you can probably tell from the laundry-list above, Goose Island takes a maximalist approach to this annual drop.
The Rocky 2015 Release
All is not completely well in the Bourbon County realm, though. Last year, the brewer began bottling these beers in 16.9 oz. bottles, rather than the standard 12 and 22 ouncers of years past. Who knows whether it was the new bottling process – or some malevolent culture – but the 2015 vintage was plagued with sour off-flavors. Consequently, the brewer spent much of this year issuing refunds and mea culpas.
Also, details about the scaled-back 2016 release have been met with less rapture than normal. I wonder whether the bearded hoards – of which I count myself a member – will be a bit smaller this year. And while I’d love not having to stand in line or hit ten different stores to find this beer, it would be a shame if people checked out on Bourbon County. I just cracked a bottle of the 2015 stout, and it was as tasty as ever.
There are better balanced ales than Bourbon County, but it remains my archetype for the bourbon barrel stout. Placing the whiskey front and center, its nose is pure toffee-vanilla. The chocolate malt serves mostly as ballast. It rolls around your mouth like a medicinal tonic, hot and spicy and bursting. The total lack of dark-roast bitterness – which I normally prefer – is actually a plus. This stout is candied and boozy. Zero nuance, in a good way.
Also, it wears its 13.7% ABV proudly. Each sip warms your whole body, beginning with your throat, working its way down to your belly, before making a U-turn to your brain.
After the dust settled on the 2015 quality control issues, it turned out the off-flavors mostly affected the coffee variant and barleywine. But the panic meant that a lot of the standard stout was left on the shelves, and it’s still drinking great. If you see it, people, buy it. And in three weeks, you’ll have a new vintage for comparison.
Explore Goose Island for the full lineup.