Oh boy, readers. I’ve been dying to try Bourbon County Barrel Aged Stout by
Anheuser-Busch Goose Island! For us beer nerds there’s a lot of history, controversy, and business politics that goes behind this legacy beer. In brief, Goose Island was one of the first breweries in the US to let beer age in bourbon barrels, kickstarting the phenomenon that dominates heavy beers today.
Goose Island is also one of the first major craft breweries to sell out to one of the big three breweries in the US.
For now, I’m going to stick to the review. But if you’d like to hear my thoughts about selling to The Man, you can find that at the end of my closing remarks. I’m not putting all that at the beginning. This isn’t a recipe for Crepes on Pinterest or anything.
So with that being said… let’s get ourselves a learnin’ on some history. Every year they release a new batch of BCBS, and this 2018 bottle features blackberries and other fruits.
…Let’s get to it!
“Times have changed and times are strange.” –Momma, I’m Coming Home, Ozzy Osbourne
In a big old bottle and poured into a tulip glass, this pours like oil being changed out a few thousand miles over the recommended limit from a ’91 Caprice Classic. Dark, sticky, with little carbonation to its character. She looks like our current economical climate: devoid of all light.
“Come senators, congressmen/Please heed the call/Don’t stand in the doorway/Don’t block up the hall.” –The Times They are a-Changing, Bob Dylan
Plums? Blackberries? This beer smells fruity and syrupy like a berry preserve made by silent drunken monks. It smells like boysenberry syrup from IHOP.
Smelling this honestly reminds me of a diner I used to go with my grandparents whenever they’d visit, and the syrup they had was purple and fragrant, just like this. I’d pour this on waffles.
“The hairs on your arm will stand up/At the terror in each sip and in each sup/Will you partake of that last offered cup/Or disappear into the potter’s ground?” –The Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash
To be clear, I wasn’t expecting much for the rye character in this beer. It’s sort of there… but far from up front. The booze notes usually found in big beers like this are absolutely decimated by the fruity additives in 2018’s BCBS.
The fruit is so up in your face like a Jehovah’s Witness in a trailer park. I almost feel like there are blackberry seeds in this beer. Blackberry seeds and jam.
It’s so sweet and tart at the same time. You know when you get a bag of frozen berries and let it sit out a bit the juice all runs to the bottom of the bag? Drink it. There you go.
BUT… that description was written when it was cold. I let it sit for over 45 minutes and drank some more. As this beer warms up, the roasted flavors really pop!! This changes the entire beer for me.
Roasted, coffee-cake-like notes with a very berry glaze is possibly one of the better desserts I can imagine this time of year. This makes me want to drink this from a glass with a cinnamon-sugar rim.
“But there’s one good thing that happens/When you toss your pearls to swine/Their attitudes may taste like shit/But go real good with wine.” –Eat the Rich, Aerosmith
The body is thinner than other barrel-aged stouts, but no problem! That usually leads to being able to knock it back a little easier and actually enjoy a full bottle of the stuff. Just because it’s a barrel aged stout doesn’t mean it needs to feel like it’s made strictly from molasses.
“’Listen, son,’ Said the man with the gun, ‘There’s room for you inside.’” –Us and Them, Pink Floyd
Overall, this beer is.. fine. Cold, this beer is all extracts and berry juice from concentrate. But as it warms up it’s absolutely apparent how the brew can shine as a predecessor of all barrel aged beers. It’s lighter than most, roasty, and of course… fruity. This is from the company that is the
king of beers grandaddy of barrel aged stouts. You can’t just make the same beer every year, that comes from corporate gets boring.
Hand made, craft beers are absolutely going to change year to year, batch to batch. That’s how it works. And apparently in 2018 they decided to add a bunch of fruit from what feels like a meadow filled with rabbits and gophers and a plethora of big, juicy berries.
My only problem with this is the cloying juiciness of the fruits added on the first tastes. It takes away from the chocolate, toasty notes of the malt build and just BAM. All of a sudden you’re drinking a chocolate covered fruitcake and that’s actually not chocolate it’s just kind of a light, cocoa dusting.
… that being said, let this beer get a little warmer and it opens right up into a perfect concoction of flavor and aroma. This is the beer that was foretold.
I say this beer pairs with coffee cake, brandy, cinnamon buttered bread, and the book Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out by Josh Noel.
“Oh? A book? Tell me about this book!”-You, I assume
*RUSHED AND MILDLY INACCURATE SPOILERS AHEAD*
I read a book recently, the aforementioned Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out, and it sort of changed my world. It’s all about Goose Island, the Chicago brewery made by John Hall during the baby years of craft brewing. It went on to be one of the largest, most innovative and inspiring breweries pioneering and helping to perfect the art of bourbon barrel aging beer, introducing seasonal releases, and championing local beer and the little guys.
Then, they grew hungry to spread the good word. Distribution is, for lack of a better phrase, a bitch to deal with. So to help, they sold a portion of their ownership to Budweiser (A-B InBev). Bud’s got a much longer reach than any other company in the world and pretty soon Goose Island, Honker’s Ale, and 312 was all over the nation.
But then… in 2011, Goose Island sold 100% to InBev. Quickly, production was moved to St. Louis, New York, and the location in Chicago eventually became smaller batches of experimental beer while the beers that put them on the map like 312 (ironically, the area code of Chicago where they were located) were brewed far and away by InBev employees.
Much of their staff left, quit, or were generally unhappy with the buyout. Some stayed on to try and fight the good fight, to keep the spirit of independence alive. But, as you know, corporate being corporate… meh.
Greg Hall, the son of John and the head brewer of Goose did not stay on with Goose Island during the buyout and instead took time off and eventually began his own cider company, Virtue Cider. Virtue is awesome! They make a hell of a product, have an amazing space, and the staff is unparalleled in customer service.
In 2017ish, they also sold to A-B InBev.
You can argue money, you can argue distribution, you can argue that these businesses just needed the capital to achieve their dream and chances are you’re probably right no matter what you guess.
There have been dozens of breweries purchased in the past ten years from big companies like Miller, Kirin, and Budweiser. Each one sees a company that is blowing up, attracting attention, and they buy it up. And why not sell, right? If you owned a business and owed, oh, let’s say a million dollars to the bank. Wouldn’t you jump at a chance to make it all back and then some while keeping the brand you worked on alive?
Or would you say that’s selling out to The Man?
A part of me thinks that I have the rebellious spirit to raise a middle finger to the suits and ties with their briefcases and their pagers and say, “No way, man. I’m not a part of your system. I’m independent, I do exactly what I want, and there’s no corporate monkey that can tell me that there’s too much hops in my goddamn beer.”
… another part of me thinks it’d be nice to pay my bills.
So that brings me back to Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. It’s good. It’s real good. I like it a lot. The fact that Goose Island helped pave the way for many of my favorite beers is amazing and a service to our industry that we cannot even imagine to repay.
Their size, their clout helped popularize the craft beer scene, and anyone who argues that clearly doesn’t study their history.
But then again… they did bend the knee to The King of Beers.
I dunno. I could use a drink.
History is important, even in brewing. It really doesn’t matter if you love crazy apricot beers or you just love yourself a Bud Light Platinum (though I may not trust you ever again on matters of taste), just as long as you love what you’re doing in this moment.
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