It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and we’re not talking about getting to gather with family and friends, give thanks, and embrace good cheer. Oh, sure, those things matter, too, but we’re of course talking about beer. As any fan knows, with Thanksgiving comes the annual release of Goose Island Beer Co.’s Bourbon County Stout.
This beer and its accompanying variants are truly the stuff of legend. Goose Island was one of the first breweries to barrel-age a stout, and is credited with helping a world of beer drinkers fall in love with the style. They still, too, lead the way in quality, care, and innovation. From painstaking processes to ensure consistency and pitch-perfect results to encouraging employees’ creativity and input, it’s no wonder that Goose Island also helped stir up the very concept of waiting in line for hours for very special beers. People still mark their calendars and set their alarms to get their hands on Bourbon County Stout, which is not only an occasion in and of itself to drink, and not only a jewel in the crown of any beer collector, but also an ideally timed treasure to share with family and friends during the holidays.
We’re thrilled to be able to connect people with Bourbon County Stout here at TapRm, so we sat down with Goose Island president Todd Ahsmann to learn about all things BCS. Take a read, get excited, and make sure you head back to TapRm on Black Friday to snag your own bottles.
Bourbon County Stout has shaped so much of present-day craft beer culture, it would be great to get into the history a bit. For starters, and most importantly, Goose Island had a huge hand in developing and introducing people to the now seemingly ubiquitous bourbon barrel-aged stout. Can you talk a little about the very beginning of the BCS--how it came to be, and how Goose Island ushered this style into the mainstream?
Todd: To celebrate Goose Island Beer Co.’s 1000th batch of beer brewed at our Chicago Brewpub, head brewer Gregory Hall wanted to do something special that no one had seen before. During a beer, bourbon, and cigar dinner in Indiana, Greg met Booker Noe, fifth generation Master Distiller of Jim Beam. As the two engaged in conversations about beer and bourbon, Greg asked Booker for a few emptied barrels of Jim Beam bourbon to experiment with. To withstand the complexities and robust flavors of this bourbon barrel, Greg decided to brew a big imperial stout. That stout then was aged in the Jim Beam barrels for 100 days and released at the Brewpub. When he pulled the beer out, Greg tasted a beer he’d never tasted before.
A couple years later he took it to the Great American Beer Festival to be judged. It was ultimately disqualified due to the unknown style not fitting into a specific category. Legend has it that the judges drank us out of the beer before the fest was even opened to the public. Based on our peers and fans' reactions, we knew we were on to something special. Following that discovery, we first packaged the beer in 2005 and then our first Black Friday release of Bourbon County Stout followed in 2010 and that’s the way it’s been ever since. Both the category and the celebration of releasing barrel-aged stouts around Black Friday can all be traced to that 1000th batch of beer brewed at our original Brewpub. What was once an undiscovered style has turned into somewhat of a phenomenon in the beer world with breweries across the country now getting into the art of barrel-aging.
The second part of the history-making aspect of BCS is that it really helped create that exciting part of beer culture that revolves around limited, yearly releases, ones you’re willing to wait on line for. Can you talk a bit about how the unveiling of BCS evolved year after year and how it came to be this big annual event for beer lovers?
Todd: Bourbon County Stout started as a local beer brewed to celebrate the brewery’s 1000th batch and has now grown into a national celebration around Black Friday. In 2008 our friends at Buffalo Trace came across some 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle barrels and asked us if we wanted them. Of course we said yes! Having such special barrels for our beer deserved a special release. We figured that if people would line up on Black Friday for goods such as TVs, then why not for beer? And Bourbon County in Pappy Barrels was the perfect beer to give it a try. The release has now grown to take place simultaneously across the country with lines reaching over 2,000 people at certain retail locations. Over the years what’s developed as a result of these releases is line culture--almost like a tradition for beer lovers that’s just as important as getting the beer. They share stories, crack open and trade beers. It’s become its own cultural phenomenon in the beer world where people travel from all over year after year to try limited edition barrel-aged stouts.
For us, BCS is all about celebrating with friends, family, coworkers, and loved ones around the holidays with a special beer. To see that celebration taking place at other breweries across the country is what makes craft beer and the community a special place.
How do the partnerships with the distilleries Goose Island works with tend to form and why are they so important?
Todd: We’ve formed some incredible relationships with distilleries over the years and that’s come about from a mutual respect and understanding of each other’s craft. We enjoy working with partners who share the same values and visions we have for creating the best quality products for our fans. At the end of the day it’s about trust and a passion for the craft finalized over a handshake and a good beer or bourbon. Over the years, we’ve grown our relationships with spirits partners including Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Old Forester, Weller, Elijah Craig, and more. Different barrels lend different flavors to Bourbon County Stout, and help pick up the nuances of that spirit those barrels once held. Being able to bring two beloved brands from the beer and spirits industry together is truly a remarkable experience for introducing new flavors to both groups of consumers.
BCBS hits shelves once a year, but it seems like it’s a year-round process getting each new year’s repertoire ready. Can you talk a little about how the year goes in terms of stages in the process?
Todd: These beers spend anywhere from eight months to two years in the barrel, so as soon as the current year of Bourbon County Stout is bottled, we are right back in the swing of brewing the base of the beer and filling barrels for the future. It’s a labor intensive process and truly a full brewery effort, but one that our team welcomes in continuing the same process Greg Hall instilled when he originally brewed the beer. It’s also a collaborative process in creating the variants like this year’s Cherry Wood Stout or Classic Cola Stout--with an open call each year to all employees to submit their own recipe for consideration. The brewers then participate in a blind tasting trial of those beers, ranking which are their favorite and why.
Once we have our variants locked in, and after eight-to-twelve months of the Imperial Stout aging in the bourbon barrels, the team will begin blending barrels, using a mix from our distillery partners to get the final beer where they want it and sourcing ingredients. Each year the weather in Chicago is a little different and temperature shifts bring a unique complex profile of bourbon, chocolate, coffee, dark fruit, vanilla, caramel, and wood to our Bourbon County Stout. Other beers like Double Barrel Toasted Barrel Stout are ideas that have taken over two years to achieve by aging in one barrel for a year and then finishing in a second. We’ll sample barrels throughout the year to make sure the aging process is coming along. As you can tell, we truly live and breathe Bourbon County Stout year round.
How about the inspiration, brainstorming, and concepting processes for the different variants Goose Island debuts each year?
Todd: It’s a team effort, from the single-barrel aged variants to the ones with adjuncts, each employee at Goose has a chance to voice their opinion and have their creativity shine. For example, for Proprietor’s, employees are able to dream up the next variant whether that’s tapping into a nostalgic feeling like having your first soda to a love for all things chocolate. This year’s Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout was the brainchild of mastermind and brewer, Emily Kosmal. She was inspired by a classic frozen treat and replicated it to create Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout, aged in bourbon barrels and blended with strawberries, vanilla, and coconut, reminiscent of a classic strawberry ice cream bar. These elements come together to create the indelible flavors of decadent shortcake, layered with vanilla and topped off with the slight fruitiness of strawberries, similar to the ice cream bar’s strawberry core. Emily--who also created the concept for 2016 Proprietor’s and 2020 Proprietor’s--is our first brewer to have three Proprietor’s concepts picked for release.
These beers can be aged, and a great way to engage with the BCS original brand, for example, is to have your own tasting comparing two or three years’ different offerings. Do you have any insight, tips, etc. for people on how to properly age their BCS? And how to have these tastings at home and what they can bring out in the experience?
Todd: We always say you can enjoy Bourbon County Stout the first day you get your hands on it, or cellar it over time. Many have experimented with aging this special beer to see how the flavor changes over time. Depending on the variant and perceived flavor development, we sometimes add recommended ‘age up to dates’ on the label.
For example from this year’s lineup, Bourbon County Stout Original can be aged up to five years, while variants with adjuncts added--like this year’s Proprietor’s brewed with strawberries and coconut--are labeled as developing in the bottle for up to two years. Variants with adjuncts typically have a shorter shelf life, as we expect that the profile of those flavors will shift from when it was fresh. It’s not to say the beer will be bad after that “best by” date, but it will likely have shifted out of the original, intended flavor profile.
Other variants that are barrel-focused like Bourbon County Reserve 150 Stout and Bourbon County Reserve Blanton’s Stout can be aged for up to five years similarly to Bourbon County Stout Original. If you’re truly looking for some brewery insights, I will tell you that we’ve tried these beers, especially BCS Original, well beyond the recommended 5 years and they’ve been delicious.
Since BCS lands in the holiday season and these are such special, celebratory beers, it’s worth thinking about how to incorporate them into holiday festivities. Do you have any recommendations on food pairings?
Todd: There’s something truly special about enjoying a delicious barrel-aged beer amongst family and friends anytime, but especially during the holidays. We recommend pairing Bourbon County Stout with bolder foods like your holiday desserts such as a spiced bread pudding or chocolate lava cake. The rich flavor and rounded roastiness of this robust stout also stands up to stews and other hearty foods, like a holiday roast, to amplify the flavor of both the beer and the food.
Considering the legacy of BCS and its future, what do you think contributes to the legendary staying power and appeal of the original stout and the variants--what makes BCS enduringly special to beer lovers?Todd: You can ask any brewer at Goose and they’ll always say how important it is to brew the best quality Bourbon County Stout each year. There’s an incredible amount of attention to detail, from our distillery partners, to each team member cleaning and filling barrels at our Barrel Warehouse, to our entire Goose family who innovates with variants, to our brewers who are master blenders. We’ve created something really special and have our loyal fans to thank. Every year we release Bourbon County Stout, we hold the tradition, quality and innovation to the same standards as when we started brewing the beer in 1992. And that, I believe, is why it’s so special to our fans.