Brace yourselves: Here come Goose Island's 2013 Bourbon County variants

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I'll be honest—I have mixed feelings about reviewing these beers. Highly sought-after limited releases provoke the craft-beer boom's grossest bullshit: nerds with more free time than sense queuing up outside a liquor store before dawn, for instance, or shadowing a delivery truck from one stop to the next, or buying a shop's entire bottle allotment to sell or trade online. In Chicago, the fancy-ass variants of Goose Island's Bourbon County Brand Stout are probably the most widely hyped releases of the year, and they drive otherwise reasonable, neighborly people into an alarming acquisitive frenzy. The new 2012 beer, Cherry Rye, might as well have been fictional for as close as I got to seeing a bottle.

But that horse is out of the barn, as they say. I'm not going to make matters any worse. (Or any better, I suppose, from Goose Island's point of view.)

Black Friday has become the traditional release date for BCBS and its cousins. This time the brewery will throw special tapping parties not just in Chicago but also in New York, San Francisco, and Austin. If you don't already have a ticket to the Chicago event, you're too late—but there is some good news. Last year's Bourbon County run filled more than 1,000 whiskey barrels, and this year all five variants required a total of roughly 2,500. Unfortunately I don't know if that 1,000-barrel figure is for "plain" BCBS alone or for all the 2012 variants combined, but either way the program has grown enormously—plain BCBS accounts for at least 1,400 barrels in 2013, based on batch-size numbers I got from Goose Island head of innovation Mike Siegel.

Four of the five 2013 beers will be distributed nationwide, though, so I can't say with 100 percent confidence that Chicago will get more Bourbon County than last year—more of the stuff stays here than gets shipped to any other city, but there are a lot of other cities.

I have to work on Black Friday, but luckily I got to try all five variants almost a week before their release—the folks at Goose Island kindly assumed that I'd actually review the complimentary bottles I'd requested, not flip them on Craigslist.

These are very strong beers, though, and some of them come in bombers, so I enlisted five friends to help. I know that sounds like a stealth brag ("Oh sure, like you have five friends!"), but I figure it'd damage my credibility worse if I didn't address the inevitable "How?" No, I do not have the alcohol tolerance of Andre the Giant. No, I did not fall asleep halfway through an ill-advised attempt to drink all five bottles myself and end up drain pouring a bunch of oxidized stout in the morning.

All the Bourbon County stouts look the same, with one exception (see below). So this picture of Backyard Rye will do.
  • All the Bourbon County stouts look the same, with one exception (see below). So this picture of Backyard Rye will do.

Anyway. I hope you've had Bourbon County Brand Stout at least once since 1992, because my tasting notes don't reiterate its baseline flavors for every variant—due to palate fatigue, I mostly picked up on the elements not common to several beers.

In case you're curious why BCBS labels don't mention a specific aging time, it's because each barrel spends anywhere from 8 to 12 months working its evil magic on whatever beer it holds. Brewers started filling barrels for this year's BCBS variants in August 2012.

Bourbon County Brand Stout 2013 (14.2 percent alcohol) It's been a spell since I've drunk straight-up BCBS, and I didn't have any bottles from previous years on hand for comparison's sake. But I remember older iterations as sweeter and more syrupy. The 2013 version, which took the bronze in the Strong Porter/Stout category at FOBAB earlier this month, smells like dates, dried figs, vanilla, molasses, and of course bourbon; of all this year's variants, it's got the most raw alcohol heat in the nose. I think it's probably the spiciest BCBS I've encountered, with some faintly tongue-numbing clove and cinnamon—the other flavors that stand out are baker's chocolate, almond, and sweet black coffee that's been caramelized in an unattended pot.

Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout (13.4 percent alcohol) Speaking of coffee, this is the biggest batch among the specialty stouts—about 230 barrels. For the first time, it's being sold in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles, like regular BCBS. Goose Island contracted with Intelligentsia to roast 2,000 pounds of beans from El Salvador—a blend called Los Inmortales, by coincidence produced entirely by the Bourbon cultivar of the coffee plant—and promptly cold brewed them in a big honking vat for a solid day.

I most recently drank BCBCS last month at two friends' wedding. I might've bought it two or three years ago, but even a 2012 bottle would've been 11 months old—and my experience with this year's version gives some credence to the commonly held notion that the coffee flavor in such beers doesn't so much develop as fade over time. The aroma of all that Los Inmortales explodes out of the bottle, putting to shame the coffee in the "cellared" bomber from my fridge. Its roasty, nutty smell carries whiskey, berries, and stone fruit in its wake. The beer tastes of coffee, of course, as well as vanilla, almond, and chocolate. Its sweet, dark malts remind me of toasted black bread with honey, and its fruity finish hits pretty specific notes of dried black cherry and blueberry. (DryHop's new Cuban-style coffee-guava stout, My Mirrors Are Black, has a similar blueberry flavor—if anything it's more distinct, because there's less to obscure it.)

Bourbo Count Brand Barleywine
  • Bourbo Count Brand Barleywine

Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (12.1 percent alcohol) Now we're getting into the beers that are entirely new for 2013. The introduction of Bourbon County Brand Barleywine—also sold in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles—accounts for most of the growth in the Bourbon County program this year. The inaugural batch filled an impressive 600 whiskey barrels, some of them freshly emptied of spirits but the majority previously used to age regular Bourbon County Brand Stout.

Bourbon County Brand Barleywine is no relation to King Henry, the spectacular Goose Island barleywine whose bottled incarnation was aged in barrels used for Rare BCBS (a beer that itself spent a whopping two years in 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle barrels). But it's nonetheless wonderful, and it promises to be vastly easier to find.

It looks almost like a flat porter, at least until a strong light strikes a ruby glow from the belly of the glass. It's got a spicy, desserty aroma whose bourbon backbone tangles itself up in cinnamon, vanilla, coconut, clove, star anise, creme brulee, cigar tobacco, and ginger snaps—if you'll permit me a digression that's even more pretentious than my usual beer vocabulary, I'm specifically thinking of the dark, crisp Swedish variety called pepparkakor. On the tongue it's more effervescent than any of the stouts, and the malts really get to work: there's whiskey again (duh), but also caramel, molasses, dates, dried black figs, scorched raisins, and stewed prunes.

Of these five beers, only the barleywine admits the passage of light.
  • Of these five beers, only the barleywine admits the passage of light.

Backyard Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout (12.7 percent alcohol) And at last, the big guns come out. Backyard Rye has already won two medals at FOBAB: gold in the Fruit Beer category and runner-up for best in show. Goose Island says it was inspired by the berries its brewers first remember eating from their yards, and it's aged with mulberries, marionberries (a variety of blackberry—no relation to the former D.C. mayor), and boysenberries (a cross between raspberry, blackberry, dewberry, and loganberry). Fulton Street brewmaster Brett Porter grew up in Portland, Oregon, which helps explain the latter two—when I lived in Eugene, it seemed like every other backyard had a thicket of blackberry brambles against the fence.

Siegel tells me that Backyard Rye filled about 200 barrels—roughly the same number as Cherry Rye or Vanilla BCBS in years past—and that 50 pounds of puree were funneled into every one. (Each barrel got a single kind of berry.) In case you're math impaired, that adds up to a frankly astonishing 10,000 pounds of fruit. None of it actually came from anybody's backyard, but some of the mulberries were harvested in Humboldt Park: Goose Island enlisted a horticulturalist to help flag trees whose fruit would ripen at the right time, and on the appointed day brewery staff returned to collect the berries by spreading tarps on the ground and shaking the trees.

Backyard Rye is aged in Templeton Rye barrels, not bourbon barrels, and the base beer contains rye malt; the same is true of Proprietor's, which I'll get to next. Goose Island made a "plain" rye version of Bourbon County stout (barrel aged with no fruit), but it's tap only.

The aroma of fruit in Backyard Rye is dense and concentrated, like a berry reduction—I smell chocolate-covered dried cherries, raspberries, and boysenberries. (I'm sorry to say I've never had a mulberry, so I'll have to remain mum on that point.) Peppery, grassy whiskey helps balance all the sweet malt and fruit. Bramble Rye, a very similar beer, smelled distractingly of Twizzlers to me, but thankfully there's very little of that nonsense coming off Backyard Rye.

Fruit leaps out just as aggressively in the flavor, bright and slightly tart—this time I definitely get boysenberry and marionberry, which is basically mellow blackberry. (Still no idea about the mulberries, sorry.) It doesn't taste nearly as sweet as the nose suggests, or coat your mouth like fruity cough syrup. The flood of berries makes it difficult to perceive much complexity in the malts, but they nonetheless announce themselves with a lick of burnt sugar, locked in a tug-of-war with bittersweet chocolate and spicy whiskey heat. In general I could go either way on fruit stouts—I always want to like them, but I'm often disappointed. This one gets a solid thumbs-up.

Those are indeed the colors of our municipal flag, signaling that Proprietors will only be distributed in Chicago.
  • Those are indeed the colors of our municipal flag, signaling that Proprietor's will only be distributed in Chicago.

Proprietor's Bourbon County Brand Stout (14.1 percent alcohol) Goose Island says this Chicago-only release, which filled a scant 88 barrels, is "meant to show our immense gratitude to our neighbors here in Chicago—the loyal and adventurous fans whose support helped bring Bourbon County Brand Stout to towering new heights." The Proprietor's name will persist after 2013, but the recipe will change every year.

Those 88 barrels of beer each had to make room for 22 pounds of toasted coconut—a total of 1,950 pounds. For the first addition, Goose Island bought shredded coconut and toasted it themselves: senior brewer Keith Gabbett (the man who invented Gillian) offloaded 500 pounds to his wife, who works as a chef and has her ways, and brewery staff handled 450 pounds in the institutional kitchens of Goose Island corporate partner Kendall College. For the second addition—another 1,000 pounds—they'd had about enough of that hot, messy drudgery and simply sourced coconut that was already toasted.

Proprietor's Bourbon County Brand Stout didn't appear at FOBAB, but if it had, it would've laid waste to the field—at least if I'd been judging. Its aroma is incredibly, astonishingly rich: not just coconut but also lush chocolate cake, date syrup, and warm toasted marshmallow. The first pour from a freshly opened bottle carries flecks of coconut (solidified oil? flesh?) that float on the surface of the beer. New Belgium's Coconut Curry Hefeweizen has similar floaties, but Proprietor's cranks all the knobs to 11.

Even my friend Sei Jin Lee, an avowed coconut hater, loved this beer—though he did describe its flavor as "liquid Mounds bar," which hardly does it justice. As I pointed out when I wrote about DryHop's Angry Samoan coconut stout, Mounds bars are actually sort of nasty in reality—sickeningly sweet and laced with sodium metabisulfite and sulfur dioxide.

Seriously. Proprietor's makes it seem as though other people who've made coconut beers weren't actually brewing with coconut, just repeatedly pronouncing the word "coconut" over them during fermentation. Some stouts manage to be redolent of toasted coconut without containing any—I'm thinking of Firestone Walker's beautiful barrel-aged oatmeal imperial, Velvet Merkin, which I had at Fountainhead last week—but Proprietor's amplifies that note till it blooms over the top of the glass like a golden, glowing mushroom cloud of deliciousness.

No BCBS variant has much of a head, but the oils in the coconut really kill it here. I couldn't care less, though. I'm never upset that there isn't foam on a glass of cognac either. The flavor profile is if anything even better than the smell: milk chocolate, dates, buttery caramel, and an undertone of piney, herbaceous rye to prevent all that dessertiness from getting cloying. The coconut tastes a little like a macaroon, but given the chance to create a "pretentious references to foreign baked goods" motif, I'll take it—let's say black cocada instead. (That's a Brazilian confection made with burnt coconut, condensed milk, and brown sugar. They're even better than pepparkakor.) Proprietor's finishes ridiculously unctuous and silky—it felt like it was leaving a sheen of coconut oil on my teeth—but I defy you to be bothered by that.

It won't surprise you that all six of the people in my living room, me included, picked Proprietor's as their favorite BCBS release. I have no problem believing that the Goose Island folks feel gratitude to the craft-beer drinkers of Chicago, given that this is how they show it.

The first Proprietors out of the bottle comes loaded with tiny white flecks of aggregated coconut oil.
  • The first Proprietor's out of the bottle comes loaded with tiny white flecks of aggregated coconut oil.

Goose Island's Black Friday event consists of five tasting sessions at the Clybourn brewpub—a new one starts every two hours, from 10 AM till 6 PM—and those tickets that you can't get anymore cost $75 a pop. I'm told there's no way to get in by showing up and waiting in line, so don't clutter the sidewalk. After the event wraps up at 8 PM, the pub will open to the public, and BCBS will be on draft.

You might also try Fatpour (2005 W. Division), which at 4 PM hosts what Goose Island says are the first tappings of the Bourbon County Brand Barleywine and 2013 Coffee Stout in the city. They'll also have 2012 and 2013 BCBS.

The Binny's in Lincoln Park, mere yards from the Clybourn brewpub, opens at 9 AM on Black Friday, and it will be selling all five BCBS variants on a first-come, first-served basis. It's of course far from the only store that will have these beers on Friday, but as far as I know it's the only one running a lottery for rare cellared Goose Island beers: starting at 11 AM, staff will draw numbers for chances to buy Rare Bourbon County, King Henry, Cherry Rye, Vanilla, Bramble Rye, and lots more.

You can expect four-packs and bombers of the 2013 beers to run $20 to $30. Retailers tend to mark them up, but competition usually prevents prices from getting too badly out of hand.

That's not to say nothing's going to get out of hand. Adam Vavrick, beer manager the Lincoln Park Binny's, commented on the shop's Black Friday page in an attempt to answer a customer question about when people would be arriving to wait in line: "One guy threatened to show up the night before with a tent," he said. "So who knows."

The aftermath. Because we are not insane, we didnt attempt to drink those Nogne O Dark Horizon stouts too.
  • The aftermath. Because we are not insane, we didn't attempt to drink those Nogne O Dark Horizon stouts too.

Unshockingly, metal songs mentioning bourbon are thick on the ground. Southern sludge-metal supergroup Hail! Hornet, whose lineup includes current and former members of Weedeater, Buzzov-en, Sourvein, Axehandle, and Beaten Back to Pure, among others, released "Beast of Bourbon" on the 2011 album Disperse the Curse.

And why not "Blood, Bourbon and Butchery" by California death punks Abscess? It's from a 2009 split with Population Reduction, who contributed "Babies Are Assholes." Other Population Reduction songs include "Road Rage at the Farmer's Market," "Amish Meth Dealer," and "Art Fucking Sucks," but they're more funny than good.

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

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