You’ll find a lot of craft beer lovers lining up early on Black Friday – only these lines won’t have anything to do with discount TVs or cheap video games.
The day after Thanksgiving is when Goose Island releases its line of Bourbon County Barrel Stouts – an ‘event’ moment in the beer world that’s so anticipated it erases the often-antagonistic lines between the craft and macro brewing worlds.
The story of BCBS goes back to 1992, when founder Tom Hall and brewmaster Greg Hall decided they wanted to do something special for batch 1,000 at the company’s brewpub.
Earlier that year, Greg had attended a beer/spirits dinner and found himself next to Jim Beam’s Booker Noe – the man who had revitalized the bourbon business. Greg mentioned an idea he had about aging beer in a bourbon barrel. Before the dinner was complete, a handshake deal had been reached.
Goose Island made an imperial stout, which was aged in the barrels for 100 days, then released it on an unsuspecting public.
“It kind of arrived and provided a lot more flavor and alcohol than people knew what to do with,” says Mike Siegel, Goose Island’s Brewery Innovations Manager.
Beer drinkers might have been a bit overwhelmed, but they loved it – and word began to spread. Goose Island began to package it in 2006 – and in 2010, the brewery expanded the offerings with the original Rare BCBS (which was aged in Pappy Van Winkle barrels).
This year, Goose Island is offering a Rare BCBS for the second time – a version that was aged for two years in 33- to 35-year old bourbon barrels from Heaven Hill. This is the beer people will be clamoring for on Black Friday – and it’s going to be both hard to find and almost certainly marked up by retailers.
“Heaven Hill had found these 33-35 year old bourbon casks and our broker had the right to them,” says Siegel. “He asked us ‘Do you want them?’ We said ‘Of course!’ … What you end up with is something that is certainly worthy to be bourbon county but its distinct in its own right. Rare doesn’t have the vanilla. It’s almost more of maple syrup aroma and a beautiful depth of character that you can only get with that extent of aging in the barrel.”
The beers are all they’re cracked up to – and worthy of the hype. But here’s the truly miraculous quality about them. Goose Island, while it made its bones as an independent craft brewer, was acquired by Anheuser Busch(BUD) in 2011. While the company continues to operate as its own entity and the recipes haven’t changed, some craft beer purists have turned up their noses on the brand’s year round offerings. But when BCBS season comes around, that self-imposed boycott (and Bud’s anti-craft commercial campaign) is conveniently forgotten.
On that day, the people lining up outside of bottle shops don’t seem to care who the owner is. They just want a spectacular beer.
“I enjoy the challenge, in a polite manner of course, of turning those people back into Goose Island fans,” says Siegel.
Black Friday has largely been the playground of Goose Island since 2010, but this year Firestone Walker is edging in on the fun. The 2015 Parabajava – an Imperial Coffee Stout that’s part of its vintage series – will only be available at the brewery and Barrelworks locations. (The company says it’s too limited to distribute.)
So what can you expect if you stand in line for a BCBS? We’ve had a chance to taste several of them. And we can vouch they’re absolutely worth braving the crowds and elements to obtain.
Bourbon County Stout Rare – This is a once in a lifetime beer. You’ll get a big sniff of the bourbon on the nose, but the first sip is velvety smooth. You’ll pick up chocolate and tobacco (as well as strong oak notes), but the depth of flavors is astounding. You’d also never guess from the taste that it carries such a high ABV. Available in the most limited of quantities, expect to pay a premium for this if you run across it. But if you do happen upon it, don’t hesitate. (ABV: 14.5%)
Bourbon County Brand Stout – The original is still an absolutely fantastic beer. Loaded with chocolate, coffee and a hint of vanilla at the finish, it also has fruit notes of dried cherries and raisins. It’s less complex than the other offerings, but that doesn’t detract from it at all. (ABV: 14.2%)
Bourbon County Brand Barleywine – Bourbon mixes with the malty notes of the barleywine to offer a unique take on the English style. It’s lighter than the other BCBS offerings, but still has a big finish and strong fruit notes. (ABV: 12.1%)
Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout – Made with the Los Delirios Nicaraguan coffee from Goose Island’s neighbor Intelligentsia, this is one of the most coffee-intense beers I’ve ever tasted. In many ways, it tastes more of a hearty chilled coffee than a beer. But if you like your stouts with a strong java bent, it’s right up your alley. (ABV: 13.4%)
Bourbon County Brand Regal Rye Stout – Beyond Rare, this is the most complex of the 2015 BCBS collection. The vanilla and chocolate notes blend with both sour and sweet cherries and blackberries adding a tart quality. Sea salt was added as a finishing enhancer to the beer, but don’t expect it to emulate a Gose. The flavor from the rye whiskey barrels ride on top of all of this, adding a punch. It’s very, very good now, but in 2-3 years, this could be amazing. (ABV: 13.5%)