As we quickly approach Black Friday, it’s once again time for the beer community to start discussing Goose Island’s Bourbon County. A beer, which once stood as the golden standard for barrel aged stouts, will be looking for a rebound year after a rough 2015 marred by infections and refunds.
While many have lost faith in the coveted stout, brewmaster Jared Jankoski has not. In a September blog post, Jared noted that there were two main changes to the 2016 batch to prevent a repeat of last year. First, the beer was flash pasteurized for the first time. If you’re curious as to what other breweries pasteurize their barrel aged stouts, Deschutes Brewery has pasteurized Abyss since 2010 after consumers complained about their 2009 release.
The second change is how the brewery selects the barrels they used; they made sure they knew where the barrel is coming from and how recently the barrel had been emptied.
For those of you that got excited to try this year’s variants after seeing information that the Alcohol and Tabaco Tax and Trade Bureau approved labels for a Maple Rye and a Scotch Prop this summer, you’ll have to wait, as neither will be included in the 2016 release. Both are currently on the backburner after Goose announced the beers weren’t ready and would be left to continue aging. Instead, the 2016 release will feature Goose Island’s core three, Regular, Coffee and Barleywine, and for the fourth year in a row, a Chicago-only Proprietors variant. We had the chance to try the beers before their Black Friday release. Here are our thoughts in ranking order, best to least best.
Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS)
Let’s start with the OG. Before variants like Coffee and Vanilla, BCBS was what started this legendary release. While the variants have changed over the years, one thing has not; You could always count on BCBS to be an outstanding barrel aged stout that matured well. One of the beauties of BCBS is that if you asked 10 beer nerds “what’s your favorite year of BCBS?” almost always you will get a number of answers. Whether it’s the big 15% from 2012, the bomber from 2009 or my personal favorite, 2013, BCBS never disappoints.
Pouring the 2016 BCBS takes me back to all the reasons why I love this beer. The nose gives off a huge (Trump sized) amount of chocolate and sweet bourbon notes. The mouthfeel is decadent, thick, rich and chocolatey, coating my mouth. The barrel character is just right, rounding out the initial chocolate notes, lingering on each sip. For a 13.8% stout, you would never know it, as there is practically zero heat. Instead, the beer finishes incredibly smooth. The 2016 BCBS fresh is the beer all Bourbon County fans want.
Bourbon County Brand Barleywine Ale (BCBBW)
When Goose Island first introduced us to their Barleywine variant in 2013, it blew us away. It had everything in a barleywine you want—the barrel character and flavors of rich toffee, raisin and vanilla. It brought us back to King Henry. Prior to this year, Barleywine always used third use barrels, meaning the barrel would be used to age bourbon, then Bourbon County Stout, and then Barleywine.
After last year’s release, a decision was made to use second use barrels, intending to not only attempt to bring back some of the barrel character we loved from 2013 and 2014, but also remove any quality issues that could arise from using old barrels.
This year’s Barleywine pours a cola color, giving off a slightly thin appearance on the body, and a faint nose of raisins and toffee with some additional heat compared to previous iterations. My initial thoughts were that the second use barrels might have taken over; however the beer evolves as it warms. That initial frontend of the beer becomes stickier, coating my mouth with vanilla and raisins. In the end, while this is no 2013 or 2014, it’s certainly an improvement on last year’s (prior to infection); there’s a little more body, and it’s still sweet but it’s not as cloying. Being that barleywines are usually a style people choose to drink with a little age on them, I’m interested to see how this one will progresses over time as the barrel mellows out.
Bourbon County Proprietors (Prop)
Starting in 2013, Goose Island began releasing their “Chicago only” beer, known as Proprietors, AKA Prop. Unlike the other variants, for Prop, Goose Island has allowed their employees to come up with ideas for the upcoming year’s variant. Of those that have had the pleasure of trying Prop, the majority consensus is that 2013, which featured coconut, is the holy grail of the series.
For 2016, one of Goose’s brewers developed a recipe using chipotle peppers and cocoa nibs, and aged in a bourbon barrel that previously stored maple syrup. The beer pours thick, however the nose is straight chocolate covered chipotle peppers, overpowering any maple you might have gotten from the barrel. Initially the mouthfeel is front-to-back heat with a brief pause for maple in between, however as the beer warms that initial heat becomes a little tamer. The flavors begin to meld together as the peppers which were so strong up front become a little gentler, followed by cocoa and some sweetness from the maple. The backend, however, continues to provide an overpowering amount of heat that assaults your palate.
This variant is going to be the polarizing beer of the set; You either love it or you hate it. It’s certainly one of the more interesting variants Goose has put out, but to enjoy this, you have to be a big fan of spiced stouts, and that’s not for everyone. There’s really no way around that wave of peppers on the backend; the maple and cocoa can only do so much. It will be interesting to see if over time the peppers dial back a bit, giving more of the spotlight to the maple and cocoa.
Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout (BCBCS)
Ever since Goose Island dropped bottles of BCBCS in 2010, coffee stout lovers have continued to run to the shelves for bottles. Like the regular BCBS, the bottles of Coffee started off strong, appearing to be the winner of the 2015 release prior to the infection issues.
For this year’s release, Jonkoski and his team traveled to Costa Rica to learn about the process and history of coffee making, and to ultimately hand pick the type of coffee for this year’s BCBCS. They decided to go with coffee from the El Cidral lot, which will be marketed as Flecha Roja under Intelligentsia.
BCBCS, the lightest of the bunch at 12.5%, comes with a deep roasted coffee aroma, almost as if you stuck your nose into a bag of freshly grounded coffee. Compared to regular BCBS is, there is a sting on the front end from the carbonation, which somewhat throws off my first impressions of the mouthfeel. What follows though is a cherry-like undertone blended with chocolate. Bitter coffee lingers on the backend. While for me this isn’t what last year’s was fresh, it’s still a well-executed coffee stout.
So there you have it, our thoughts on Goose Island’s 2016 release. Now most of you are probably asking questions after the 2015 release about what the changes for 2016 could mean. We caught up with brewmaster Jared Jankoski to ask some of these questions.
Paste: How does flash pasteurization affect the aging process?
Jared Jankoski: I don’t think it will do a whole lot to be honest. The process is really quick and gentle on the beer; it only lasts for about a minute at most. We have a tasting panel that is very sharp here at Goose that tastes the beer throughout the year. The aging, softening, and rounding that everybody sees and enjoys with this beer should not be any different from previous versions.
Paste: How can consumers trust that we won’t see a repeat of 2015?
JJ: We simplified and improved our barrel procurement, and that’s a big deal for us. To have a single-source, knowing the barrels are fresh and of good quality is important. Also, moving to flash pasteurization is a huge deal. Something I really didn’t get into on the blog post was that we figured out what our problem was last year and how to detect it microbiologically in the beer. Then what we did was we worked with some very smart people to develop a microbiological test. Now it’s tricky because it’s a barrel and you know there is going to be something in there, but it comes down to what you know you want and don’t want coming out of these tests. Now we can detect well ahead of time what might be in a beer that might pose a problem to us.
We have been using new technology very cautiously, and talking with our brewers to make sure we are able to minimize what could cause issues with our beers going forward. I know there is some concern from consumers, and consumers might call me out on my intentions since I didn’t create the beer, but I honestly love the Bourbon County Stout, and I am going to captain this beer forward in the highest quality that I can.
Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout and variants are released on Black Friday, November 25.