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FIRST TASTE | 2018 Bourbon County Stout

FIRST TASTE | 2018 Bourbon County Stout
Mike Zoller

If Greg Hall hadn’t been at a Beer, Bourbon and Cigar dinner with Jim Beam’s Booker Noe when Goose Island was nearing its 1,000th batch of beer, who knows if we would have Bourbon County Stout today?

Luckily, we don’t have to ponder that particular question. Some barrels arrived at Goose Island in 1990-something (no one seems to know the exact year) and the first batch of Bourbon County Stout was made.

“People would make a special beer for a round number (batch),” Hall said. “Larry Bell was the king of this. He would do batch 500, 1000, 1500 and those were collectible.”

Hall tells the story of Bourbon County Stout.

For the 1000th batch of Goose Island beer, Hall knew they had to do something special. Hall was the guest brewer at the dinner in South Bend, Ind. where Noe was also in attendance.

“He (Noe) was an old-school Kentucky guy,” Hall said. “I asked him if I could snag some bourbon barrels for a special batch of beer. I talked with his assistant and six bourbon barrels showed up at our loading dock. We decided to make an imperial stout and make it as big as we could make it.”

Decades later, Goose Island’s flagship beer continues to be Bourbon County Stout. The brewers continue to keep the base beer the same, but the variants explore different flavor profiles, intriguing craft beer fans year after year.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Goose Island Brewmaster Jared Jankoski said. “It’s not my beer, it’s Greg’s beer and we don’t change anything about it. It’s an honor to be a part of the beer and to take care of it.”

Each year, the announcement about what the variants will be is highly anticipated. This year, the announcement came much later than in years past and, with many labels approved, it was unknown which variants would actually make it to the Black Friday release.

There were some notable changes to the lineup this year. For the first time since 2009, there’s no coffee variant but there is a coffee barleywine instead.

The coffee barleywine originated from a mistake: The brewers were using a Randall full of coffee beans and someone attached the line to the wrong key. Barleywine started to go through the Randall and, after they tried it, they liked what they had so they ran with it.

As is the tradition, Vanilla Bourbon County Stout returns after a four-year hiatus (the vanilla variant is only made every four years). If you don’t get the 2018 release, your next opportunity is in 2022.

Goose Island is also making a wheat wine variant this year which is a new style for Bourbon County.

“It’s Bourbon County stout in its simplest form,” R&D Brewer Tim Faith said. “Nothing can hide in this beer. The malts have all been taken away, so it’s really a simpler beer.”

Prop this year is going to be a chocolate bomb. Three different types of chocolate were used in the beer which will have the taste of a chocolate brownie. Goose Island has never used this much chocolate in a beer— ever.

To understand how difficult it is to create a variant, Goose Island let us try to create our own Bourbon County variant using French presses and a wide variety of ingredients.

Making a variant isn’t as easy as one would think.

We had the base beer from 2017 and everything from cocoa nibs and coconut to all kinds of fresh fruits. This is essentially how Prop is made created every year: All the brewers get a base beer and then come back with their own concoction.

I thought it would be pretty simple to make a variant so I started with cocoa nibs, vanilla bean, coconut, raspberries and a splash of pineapple juice. It was awful.

My second attempt was a bit simpler. I used coffee beans, cocoa nibs, a little bit of coconut and just a touch of orange peel. It wasn’t bad, but I still didn’t have the winning variant.

The exercise showed just how hard creating a variant is, not only because you have to figure out the right combination of ingredients, but because once you get the actual ingredients you have to figure out the ratio.

One brewer said you could give everyone the exact same ingredients and everyone’s beer would taste different because of the ratios people would use.

There are eight beers in total this year. Because there are still more than two months until the Black Friday release, five of the beers were ready for tasting. The ones we didn’t try were Prop, Midnight Orange and the Coffee Barleywine.

After trying the variants, one common theme came to mind regarding the angle Goose Island was going for this year with Bourbon County: approachable.

While the beers will appeal to the long-time craft beer fans, they seem to be flavors and variants that a person who doesn’t normally drink barrel-aged stouts might give a shot.

I’ll give my thoughts on the variants we did try below. However, the base beer wasn’t packed with bourbon notes but instead was incredibly well-balanced and would be a good starting point for a stout drinker.

Vanilla and Bramble have such palate-friendly flavors that someone who might be put off by heavy stouts will enjoy the sweetness of the vanilla or the fruit-forward notes of Bramble.

While we didn’t try Prop or Midnight Orange, Prop was described as a fudge chocolate brownie— who wouldn’t want to try that? And the classic flavor combination of orange and chocolate for Midnight Orange could definitely get someone to give it a try.

The beers that a first-timer probably wouldn’t gravitate towards right away would be Reserve and Wheatwine, but if Goose Island can get a new market of drinkers to try four or five of eight variants, that’s a big win.

Here are my thoughts on the five beers we did get to try.

Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout | ABV: 15.2%

Photo by Eric Dirksen

Perhaps my favorite variant of the tasting session, the reserve variant uses 11- and 12-year old Elijah Craig bourbon barrels to create a bourbon-forward Bourbon County Stout that is heavy on bourbon but is still a very well-balanced stout that incorporates notes of chocolate, molasses and coffee.

The whiskey that was in these barrels actually won Heaven Hill the Whiskey of the Year award in 2017. Last year’s Reserve was a fan favorite and I have a feeling this year’s version will be received equally as well.

Bourbon County Vanilla | ABV: 14.9%

Photo by Eric Dirksen

This is probably the most anticipated variant of 2018 and I’ll let you know: It doesn’t disappoint. 2014’s Vanilla Rye is still one of the most coveted bottles of Bourbon County Stout today and while there are similar notes, this year’s release is different.

Most noticeably, this year the barrels used are straight bourbon barrels so the rye notes are gone. While you’ll get a little bit of late heat from the barrel in this year’s batch, vanilla and marshmallow are the stars. On the nose, you get an amazing sensation of soft creamy marshmallow, similar to the jars of marshmallow fluff I’m sure you had in your pantry growing up, and rich Madagascar vanilla. It smells heavenly and is incredibly pungent.

What you taste and what you smell don’t actually add up and that’s probably a good thing. As potent as the smell is, the taste is more balanced with the bourbon base beer still noticeable and the marshmallow and vanilla notes leading the way, but not overpowering.

There’s no artificial vanilla flavors in the beer as brewers processed whole Madagascar vanilla beans by hand to create an authentic flavor that will make this variant one of the hardest to get on Black Friday.

Bourbon County Wheatwine | ABV: 14.9%

Photo by Eric Dirksen

A lighter, more unique variant this year, wheatwine surprised me with how flavorful and balanced this beer was.

You’ll get a lot of toffee, caramel, vanilla and butterscotch on the palate and you should notice this beer is slightly more carbonated than the other variants in the series. It had the characteristics of a Belgian-Quad with similar tannins and, even though this beer is lower (albeit slightly) in ABV than the base beer, it tastes a bit hotter.

There really is nowhere for things to hide in this beer so it seems boozier, even though it isn’t.

Bourbon County Bramble Rye | ABV: 12.7%

Photo by Eric Dirksen

This is another one of those variants that people are going crazy for and it won’t disappoint. The lowest ABV of the batch at 12.7% allows highlights of blackberry and raspberry fruit with a late spice brought on by the rye barrel.

If someone doesn’t think barrel-aged stouts are for them, this would be one to start with as the fruit really is the star of the beer and, from the start to the finish of the taste, it’s present.

The beer sat in 10- and 6-year old rye casks which give it some added depth; the late spice doesn’t overpower the flavor, either. It truly tastes like chocolate covered raspberries and blackberries.

The fruit comes from Michigan and Washington and as someone in the tasting described, “berry jam” is a good descriptor.

Bourbon County Stout | ABV: 15.2%

Photo by Eric Dirksen

Bourbon County Stout is the classic original. The base beer, which sets the table for the variants, is different to me than in previous years. Typically there’s a strong note of some ingredient which you can pinpoint and leads the flavor of the beer. However, this year, it’s well-blended—maybe so much so that one major ingredient doesn’t stand out.

Original is incredibly drinkable and smooth and, at 15.2% ABV, you’ll have to be careful because it doesn’t taste like a 15% ABV beer. Though you’ll get classic notes of chocolate, coffee, fresh tobacco and molasses, I remember last year’s offering having much stronger notes of chocolate and the year before that a coffee flavor really highlighting Original.

Update: Of the five beers I had for a second time at the media tasting, only Original really changed. As you’ll see above, it wasn’t memorable to me. It was good but nothing stood out. That changed at the second tasting. This time around I got a lot of bourbon that was very forward but not overpowering.

With the bourbon taking center stage, the other notes in the beer began to come out as well. You get a little vanilla, subtle chocolate and rustic tobacco and leather notes that show up in the background.

Original went from one of my least favorite, to a top three beer in this year’s lineup. Was it a different batch I got? Did the beer develop over the past month? I’m not sure but I’m curious to see what people think as they pop open bottles on Black Friday.

Bourbon County Proprietor’s 

Photo by Eric Dirksen

There’s no picture because Prop was literally taken out of the bright tank just hours before the media tasting. Prop was described to us as a fudgey, chocolate-bomb with several types of chocolate used in the beer.

I think this will be a beer that people either love or hate. The nose of this beer is full of chocolate and it’s really pleasant. But on the taste it was like eating straight baker’s chocolate and I got an overly chalky flavor that wasn’t for me.

Is this purely a flavor preference – absolutely. No beer in the lineup this year was poorly made. It’s all going to come down to preference. At the media tasting there were people who said Prop was their favorite variant of the eight, so go figure.

One thing that I did do with Prop that I would recommend is to cuvee it with the other variants. Specifically Midnight Orange, Bramble Rye and Vanilla. I had a lot of fun doing that and the new combinations were actually pretty tasty.

Bourbon County Midnight Orange | ABV: 15.2%

Photo by Eric Dirksen

Like Prop, Midnight Orange will come down to personal flavor preference. Do you remember those chocolate covered oranges you’d get during the holidays? Did you like them? If yes, you’ll like Midnight Orange. If not, you’ll probably want to pass on this one.

It has a strong citrus flavor and nose that is highlighted by the Spanish orange peel. The chocolate is light and takes a back seat to the orange flavors. I personally would have loved a bit more chocolate to balance the beer out. When I added Prop to this beer, for me, it was completely different and I loved it.

At the tasting some people loved this one and I was definitely in the minority when I said it wasn’t for me. That’s what makes these tastings so much fun. You’ll get 20 people in a room tasting the same beer and you get a variety of opinions.

Bourbon County Coffee Barleywine | ABV: 15.1%

Photo by Eric Dirksen

A new twist on barleywine this year started as an accident as stated earlier in this piece. I absolutely loved coffee barleywine. Every year Barleywine typically is lurking in the background of allocations. It’s not one that you typically seek out, but this year that might change.

You’ll get a strong whiff of coffee on the nose and on the taste I got a sweet glass of cold brew that hit all the senses for me. It’s light, flavorful, full of coffee and just delicious.

The beans are again from Goose’s next door neighbor Intelligentsia and come from Guatemala. They are sweet and fruity and are perfect for a barleywine. Don’t sleep on it this year – it’s great.

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