Bourbon County Brand Stout: How Does it Keep Ticking?

November 24, 2017

By Miles Liebtag, November 24, 2017

What would make you rise before dawn, or forego a night’s sleep entirely, to go huddle for hours on a cold, rainy sidewalk in the last days of November? An insane deal on a flat screen television? A chance at snagging some extremely limited brand new sneaker? A bottle of beer?

Long derided as the ugly nadir of consumerist excess, Black Friday and its attendant madness are, for better or worse, ensconced in the American holiday tradition. In Chicago, Goose Island’s annual Bourbon County Brand Stout release, which has occurred yearly on Black Friday since 2006, has become part of the fabric of the Thanksgiving holiday for beer fans throughout the region. 

Why do people still line up for Bourbon County Brand Stout? It’s a great question – with Anheuser Busch InBev's acquisition of Goose Island in 2011, many in the beer community thought that the days of BCBS’s vaunted status were numbered, and speculation that recipes would be changed, rushed, and dumbed down was rampant.

And while many of Goose’s core and seasonal releases did undergo many changes (and not all of them bad) in the succeeding years, the changes to the BCBS lineup (and the Goose Island barrel program generally) seemed all for the positive: from 2011 to 2016, Goose introduced many new variants to the BCBS lineup, including a Barleywine, a coffee stout variant featuring a rotating selection of Intelligentsia coffee beans, and the sought-after Proprietor’s Blend, a stout made with a variety of different tasty adjuncts and which for the past two years has included chili peppers.

As more and more people were coming into the craft beer tent, BCBS entered the pantheon of the Rare, Desired and Well-Known: while it was nearly impossible for the average consumer to lay hands on it for much of the year, it was also a brand that basically every beer geek had heard of, from the neophyte to the veteran line-sitter. While the Goose/ABI connection rankled many, BCBS’s star continued to rise along with the fortunes of craft beer at large. 

Michael KiserA brand so solidly built that it has weathered the biggest of storms.

As 2016 may be remembered as the beginning of a gestalt shift for the craft beer industry (due to lagging growth, market saturation, increased competition, etc.), it will undeniably be marked as a bump in the road for the BCBS brand. In January of 2016, Jared Jankoski, Goose Island’s Brewmaster, issued a statement acknowledging that two of 2015’s BCBS variants were “off,” that is, "they have developed flavors that are not consistent with our expectation of how these beers should taste.”

The beers in question, both 2015 BCBS Barleywine and Coffee Stout, were, in a word, “infected” – that is, the off-flavors and over-carbonation evident in these beers was caused by contamination with microorganisms never intended for them, either “wild” (i.e., not introduced by brewers) yeasts or bacteria. The resultant off flavors led the beers in question to taste tart (unintentional sourness is usually a good sign something’s gone very awry), have much thinner bodies and mouthfeel than expected, and, in some cases, foam wildly when opened, an effect of additional carbonation caused by refermentation in the bottle.

The infection debacle caused a huge uproar in the beer community, especially among those parts of it who delight in collecting, trading and hoarding rare beers like the BCBS line. Goose, by most accounts, acted quickly and conscientiously to address the problem and offered refunds through February of 2016. (Later in the year it was also acknowledged that two more BCBS variants, for a total of four of the six released in Nov. 2015, were also plagued with the same problems). 

The enduring appeal of BCBS is a testament to its legendary status among beer aficionados.”

While many were quick to blame Goose and parent company ABI’s lowered quality standards and desire for larger production volume on one of their most high-profile and high-dollar products, and others began writing premature obituaries for BCBS’ hegemony, the 2016 Bourbon County Stout release seemed to proceed much as it had in years past, with plenty of eager customers lining up for bottles on Thanksgiving Night. And the 2017 release is shaping up to be no different: with six different variants releasing this year (BCBS Reserve Barleywine is notably absent), geeks, hoarders and black marketeers from far and wide will undoubtedly line up well in advance to lay their mitts on whatever they can. 

The enduring appeal of BCBS is a testament to its legendary status among beer aficionados. Goose Island has been making Bourbon County Stout since 1992 (or 1995, depending on whom you ask), first as a unique way to mark the 1000th batch of beer brewed at its Clybourn brewpub, and since as a yearly celebration of creativity and craftsmanship.

It was immediately disqualified in judging during Great American Beer Festival in the Russian Imperial Stout category in 1995 – the judges seemingly didn’t know quite what to make of it, as this was effectively one of the very first bourbon barrel aged beers ever produced. The barrel program at Goose, under the direction of former brewmaster Greg Hall, arguably laid the groundwork for American craft beer's decades-long obsession with barrel aging.

For years a local delicacy, as BCBS’ footprint grew, so too did its national legend, and as bottles made it to legitimate distribution further and further from Chicago, more and more drinkers were able to experience the “original” bourbon barrel-aged beer. It is hard to overstate BCBS’ influence on the American craft beer scene of the past generation.

Along with a handful of other White Whales, like Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, The Alchemist’s Heady Topper, and Three Floyds’ Dark Lord, BCBS occupies a curious place in the cosmology of American beer: of wide enough national repute to be almost universally known, but still uncommon and remarkable enough to be fervently sought after. Barrel-aged stouts today are almost literally a dime a dozen, and seemingly every tiny brewery in the country has a few barrels of something desert-like squirreled away, but the draw of BCBS remains, for now at least, seemingly undiminished. 

Bourbon County Stout still commands respect and exerts influence.”

Which is why, perhaps, it still commands such a high price. Today, tickets to a guided Bourbon County Brand Stout tasting in Goose Island’s Chicago taproom will go on sale for for $100; along with 18oz of beer to drink on-site, punters will also be given the immense privilege of purchasing one additional bottle of the precious liquid.

In addition to Original Bourbon County Brand Stout, releases this year include the annual iteration of the Coffee Stout, Bourbon County Barleywine (although, as noted, not the Reserve Barleywine), the extremely-bourbony Bourbon County Stout Reserve, Bourbon County Northwoods Stout with almonds, and the 2017 Proprietor’s Blend. In its fifth year of release and available only in Chicago, this year’s version is inspired by Bananas Foster, and (along with this year’s Bourbon County Reserve, a collaboration with Knob Creek) will be released to an elect few a week early at this year’s “Prop Day” celebration on Nov. 19 (for which the ticket lottery is sadly already closed). 

While in New York for business back in April, I visited a number or larger retail beer accounts. At one of them, a market in Long Island City, I stumbled across a massive floor display of BCBS 2016. Cases were stacked up to eye level, nestled among other seasonal beer releases and a large display of San Pellegrino. It was striking to see something I once considered so rare in such abundance – but New York has long had access to this beer, and production of it has of course expanded to meet an explosion in demand these past ~six years or so.

But I live in Ohio, where the alcohol cap on beer was, until last summer, 12% ABV, and precluded BCBS’ distribution here (it typically clocks in at 14%+). Already it seems like there is a palpable excitement and anticipation for the release of this beer here, just as there is every year for its release in Chicago.

In a market and a scene that seems sometimes obsessed with independence and DIY bona fides, Bourbon County Stout still commands respect and exerts influence, even with the provenance of Goose Island’s ownership being widely known. After over twenty years, the proof is evidently still in the liquid.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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