The Brewery-Wide Competition Behind Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout VariantsNovember 21, 2018
First brewed more than two decades ago in Chicago, the original Goose Island Bourbon County Stout is one of those rare beers that has withstood the test of time and trends. Coal-black and deceptively smooth for its high ABV, the original regularly tops lists of game-changing beers. It’s generally accepted as the first major whiskey barrel-aged release and is often credited with the launching the national barrel-aging mania.
While the brewers at Goose Island know better than to mess with brewmaster Gregory Hall’s winning formula, that doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to have a little fun. Every year on Proprietor's Day the brewery releases a series of limited-edition variants that add a little something extra to the original. This year’s impressive roster includes the Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout, with grade A beans from Madagascar, the Bourbon County Brand Bramble Rye Stout, with tangy notes from blackberries and raspberries, the Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine, made with Guatemalan coffee beans, and the coveted Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout, aged in premium 12-year-old Elijah Craig Barrel Proof bourbon barrels.
“Every year, we try to stay true to the original recipe on Bourbon County and come up with something special for our fans, both craft beer enthusiasts and novices,” says brewer Oscar Sanchez. “We use fresh ingredients to make these pop and shine.”
Sanchez, along with quality analyst Paul Lievens, was one of the masterminds behind this year’s Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout, a heady concoction fragrant with orange zest and chocolate. Competition each year is stiff and both feel privileged to have their idea selected from all of the entries.
“The invitation to come up with variants each year is brewery-wide. You can submit multiple variants, although I only submitted one,” Sanchez says. Entries are submitted anonymously and vary widely. “Like Paul and I did, you get inspired by things you’ve eaten, things you’ve tasted, things you’ve smelled, even things from your childhood.”
What’s curious about the Midnight Orange Stout is that while Sanchez and Lievens arrived at more or less the same idea, their routes could not have been more different.
“My inspiration was very simple. I ordered a mocha chocolate beverage on a family vacation in the Yucatán. The flavors really popped. It had natural cacao, it had cinnamon, it had coffee,” Sanchez says. Years later, that bold, bright combination stuck with him. “These are flavors that are really similar to the ones that I associate with Goose Island Stout, so I started experimenting with using these flavors with orange essence.”
Meanwhile, Lievens turned to a nostalgic source much closer to home. With the holidays just around the corner, he thought back an annual Christmas tradition.
“My grandmother would put one of those chocolate-orange candies in my stocking every year,” Lievens says. Common in households in the U.K. and the U.S. since the 1930s, Terry’s Chocolate Oranges split easily into segments, making them ideal for passing around to relatives after opening presents. “It was a small thing that you looked forward to sharing with your family.”
Coming up with the idea was one thing, but executing it was quite another.
“I started out playing with the orange zest, then adding just a little bit of chocolate to bring out the notes of chocolate that are already in the original Bourbon County,” Lievens says. “When I was doing the trials, I added regular chocolate because that’s what I could find in my local supermarket.”
Since the trial batches are about loosely expressing a concept, supermarket candy bars were more than adequate. When it came to actually creating the beer for distribution, however, the brewers knew that they needed to up their game.
“In the final beer, we got a much better flavor profile out of using two types of single-origin cacao nibs,” Lievens says. The cacao nibs add an intense hit of flavor without the sugar and fat that might otherwise alter the mouthfeel of the finished stout. Figuring out how to incorporate the requisite burst of citrus was another challenge. Ultimately, the brewers concluded that zest, not juice, gave the popular confections their distinctive aroma. “We use a special flash-frozen, vacuum-sealed orange zest, so it’s still essentially fresh when you thaw it. ”
The result has a rich, chocolatey aroma, an ABV of 14.9%, and not the slightest hint of cloying sweetness. It manages to be both an innovative twist on and a loving homage to the original. After carefully tinkering with batches, the duo is happy to sip on the fruits of their labor, which ships nationwide on Black Friday.
“Obviously, there are favorites that people ask us to redo each year, but we always try to get something new that hasn’t been done before,” Sanchez says. “I’m pretty pleased with the results and I hope people will enjoy it.”