Goose Island Bourbon County
For those who enjoy the darker end of the beer spectrum Stateside, Black Friday means more than just fights in shopping malls over cheap TVs, it means imperial stouts – and lots of them. Many breweries now release something rather big to help those traumatised by the preceding day's family fallouts, and none is more widely anticipated than the Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout. Widely recognised as the first bourbon barrel-aged stout to be sold commercially, and specifically designed to pick up characteristics from the preceding spirits, it created quite a stir at the Great American Beer Festival in 1995. Since becoming a regular release back in 2005, the hype, the parties and the resale value have all rocketed, even as the brewing has stretched to months and the number of barrels being filled has grown into the thousands. The range has also expanded to include a coffee-infused version, a barley wine, and a special Proprietor’s crafted purely for local Chicago supporters with extra ingredients added (this year it is maple syrup, cocoa nibs and chipotle peppers).
The elephant in the room is of course Goose Island's ownership; now that the brewery is in the hands of AB InBev many have turned their backs on them (including brewmaster Greg Hall who left when the takeover occurred in 2011). This is a complicated and fractious argument so I won't go too deeply into it here, but the fact production of the beer has increased and is going to be available over here, as well as more high profile events such as their Block Party in Shoreditch the other month, is surely a consequence of the greater financial weight they possess. Having more good beer around is certainly a good thing, but what is the cost we don't see? A debate for another day. However, back to the beer at hand, and we lucky folks in the UK now have a chance to partake in this delicious ritual. Expect the long queues and immediate mark-ups, as Clapton Craft in Kentish Town will have just a hundred bottles to sell at £20 a pop.
But is it worth it? The answer is both yes and no; we are incredibly lucky tonight at this press preview to taste both 2015 and 2016 vertically, and the verdict is that this a great beer fresh, and a phenomenal one once aged. The current release tastes wonderful, with chocolate and alcohol warmth on the nose, followed by toffee and vanilla in abundance on the palate. The 2015 is simply beautiful; much thicker and smoother in mouthfeel, syrupy chocolate and toasted coconut dominates with majestic effect. This year's version differs slightly in that it has been flash pasteurised (some of the previous batch was contaminated by the wild Lactobacillus yeast), and the barrels have a lower minimum of holding the original bourbon for four rather than six years. This in part has led to more of the wood's characteristics coming to the fore now, but only time will tell what effect this might have once the beer has had time to age and develop.
There is no doubting Bourbon County Brand Stout is a very special beer, and I do hope that once the initial rush has died down we are able to get more over this side of the pond (at a cheaper price too). This is a landmark beer that caused a sea-change in the industry upon its debut and is spoken of in revered tones alongside the likes of Pliny The Elder and Heady Topper; it both deserves to be available to a wider audience, and we deserve to be able to have it here in the birthplace of the imperial stout.