by Paul Deines
Let’s talk variants. They’ve existed as long as the modern craft beer scene, these embellished versions of other beers. Lately they seem to have gone into hyperdrive. In the last year alone I personally have had an Abominable made with coffee and cinnamon, a Bo & Luke made with elderflower and lavender, a Vanilla Framinghammer, and a Bourbon Barrel Mexican Cake. I had Speedway Stouts aged on bourbon and Speedway Stouts brewed with Vietnamese coffee. And that’s just the dark ales.
Some variants are transcendent, some awful. Dammit, though, if beer geeks don’t fall all over each to secure them. Of the 50 highest-rated beers on Beer Advocate right now, ten are variants on a base beer. And two of those are from Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout series.
Bourbon County, as we’ve discussed in years past, currently features a flagship stout, a coffee stout and a barleywine. Beginning in 2010, Goose Island has also bottled variants aged in rye barrels with special ingredients, and every year there’s a mad dash for them. I’ve bitched about this before: this release brings out the worst beer-hoarding imaginable, on a national scale. And don’t forget the yearly Proprietor’s variant, released in Chicago, Or the once-in-a-blue-moon Rare BCBS. The annual Black Friday release is edging into self-parody. I mean, in 2015, Goose Island released six different Bourbon County beers. The frenzy to collect them all is reminiscent of pogs, Beanie Babies and Pokemon cards.
Of course, I’m totally part of the droves. I mean, the hype is out there, but the product is almost always delicious. So, yes, I ventured out this past November and returned with a decent selection of Bourbon County. The madness of this release encourages stocking up, though a more honest term might be hoarding. I try to toe the line here: enough to drink and split with friends, a couple bottles to cellar.
This year, I snagged two bottles of the Bourbon County Regal Rye.
This is the third rye-and-adjunct variant I’ve had. 2013’s Backyard Rye – a mélange of native Midwestern berries – was pleasant enough, but felt like I was spooning an entire jar of preserves into my mouth. In 2014, Goose Island re-released its storied Vanilla variant, which was decadent like tiramisu atop a brick of fudge.
Regal Rye looks identical to the standard stout. It’s black, dense, though perhaps a bit more effervescent than its forebear. A swirl and a whiff reveals the clever mix of additives: candied cherries, blackberries and sea salt. You end up with a nose full of marshmallow, black chocolate, cappuccino and smashed berries, slightly reminiscent of brandy. It hits the tongue like BCBS cut with cabernet but opens up as you swish it around. The cherry comes out, as does jam and stewed plum, then everything is reeled in with s savory salt shock. The bourbon barrel in regular BCBS tends to come in extremely hot, but not here. Regal Rye’s bourbon character is tempered by the fruit and the spiciness of the rye barrel. This stout is substantial and strong to be sure, but more balanced than I expect from a Bourbon County brew.
I wonder, though, whether the level of quality matters here.
I don’t like bagging on beers. If I don’t like a beer, I don’t write about it. And Regal Rye is not bad. It’s as good as any other Bourbon County ale: a little better than some, not quite as good as the best. But I’m apt to be hard on it because of the madness it inspires. They are scarce and fleeting and difficult to produce. Beer geek antennae go up, and the swarming commences. None of this is Goose Island’s fault, of course. It’s symptomatic of a drinking community that is prone to hype and, honestly, greed. It’s a bummer: somewhere out there some recent craft beer convert is reading hosannas to this series and yet will never be able to secure a bottle. Meanwhile, some neckbeard has three cases in his basement.
Still, I don’t see the end of this unfair resource allocation anytime soon. I’d love to force every beer-lover to limit his or her Bourbon County purchase, but it’s not up to me. And anyway, that’s what we call Communism, right? So, I want to do my part as someone who writes about these beers. After all, if I’m going to dedicate this many words to a brew, I obviously love it. Nonetheless, I’m making a commitment going forward, to offer readers a more easily-attainable beer to try if the pseudo-rarity I’m reviewing isn’t available. Ready? Here we go.
Barrel-aged and/or fruited stouts are growing more popular, if not ubiquitous. So, here are a couple options that make the rounds, courtesy of the Danish expat Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø’s Brooklyn-based Evil Twin Brewing. Keep your eyes open for Imperial Biscotti Break and its variants. Once limited releases, these dark-roast stouts now enjoy regular and wide distribution. The base beer is a revelation and available year-round, and you can sometimes find versions that are aged on bourbon or spiked with cherries. Quaff one of these glorious confections, and you’ll forget all about Bourbon County stouts. Until next year.