by Paul Deines
For most Americans, Black Friday means riot-inciting sales at national retailers and service workers powering through a tryptophan haze to greet customers at 4 AM. The Black Friday experience for beer nerds is inextricably connected to Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery. The Friday after Thanksgiving has become the nearly nationwide release of Goose Island’s storied Bourbon County Brand Stout.
Cards on the table – I’m not a huge fan of fresh BCBS. A hugely boozy imperial stout (14% ABV!), it’s too hot, sweet, and undisciplined out of the barrel, but it ages well. I have the 2011, 2012, and 2013 vintages, and I don’t intend to crack 2011 until next year, when the bourbon has tapered off a bit. Goose Island also releases BCBS variants. A blend made with Intelligentsia Coffee is a big-ticket whale, and Goose Island’s done one-off vintages aged in Pappy Van Winkle barrels, or made with cherries, vanilla, coconut, and berries. This year, one of their Bourbon County offerings is an English-style barleywine.
The barleywine style is lush and potent, comparable in its way to a Belgian Quad. The modern American incarnation matches the fruit and toffee notes with a solid dose of fragrant, bitter hops, but the Bourbon County Brand Barleywine is all Old World (not that any bitterness could hope to survive the extended barrel-aging). More cards – the barleywine is not one of my favorite styles either. I’m sort of a dilettante in this regard: it’s hard to find a mood where I crave this type of beer. Too sweet for dinner; too light for dessert. So, these brews get short shrift from me.
Question, then: how does a style of beer I’m not normally a fan of fare as part of the Bourbon County line, of which I also have mixed feelings?
Answer: ay-goddamn-mazing. Reason?
First, the barrels used for BCBBW are third use. They were used in the aging of Kentucky bourbon; then they were used in the aging of a previous year’s BCBS. So, this barleywine takes notes not only of spirits but also of the chocolaty stouts of yesteryear. This mélange was enough to pique my curiosity.
The barleywine is a solid burnish. The 12% ABV means virtually no head, only a tan halo. Then the nose -- good lord, the nose: vanilla, honeysuckle, dates, toffee, smoke tobacco, licorice, blackberry and boot leather. Musty and sweet, this is a baroque compilation. I’m not a cigar guy, but this has to be the ideal pairing for a good Cuban. Tip back that first sip and the bourbon bomb explodes, but this isn’t the razor-sheer of spirits you get with the stout. No, this is smooth and lovingly integrated with the dried fruit and baking chocolate. There’s even some coffee hanging around in the back, and the aftertaste is caramel and stewed plum. Lighter and fruitier than the stout, BCBBW is a monster beer but not stupefying.
One last point: I think Goose Island – which was recently bought by AB-Inbev – has managed a perfectly good rollout, but a release like this (or KBS, or Parabola) is always an occasion for what Chicago journalist Philip Montoro called “the craft-beer boom's grossest bullshit.” There were no Black Friday tazings surrounding the release, only the same old beer hoarding. I very much doubt the bearded droves carting off BCBS variants by the case, dropping a thousand dollars in the process, were planning on drinking all of them. Chances are they plan to trade them for a crate of Plinys and a Kentucky Brunch. Beer forums are awash with justification for the buy-in-bulk-to-trade strategy, the most common being that trading spreads the wealth. Well, it only spreads the wealth to other beer traders. I myself am a beer trader and have to fight the urge to buy bottles I know I’m not going to drink. So, I implore the hardcore beer geeks: leave a couple on the shelf for the next guy
BOURBON COUNTY BRAND BARLEYWINE (Goose Island) – Goose Island distributes through nearly all of the continental US, and the Bourbon County line is still working its way round this great nation. No promises that your local beer place still has the BCBBW in stock, but it’s worth checking.