Bottom of the barrel: How a bourbon-aged beer gained celebrity status

Epic car journeys. Bottles sold on by sketchy traders for hundreds of dollars. Hours spent in line, or watching and waiting on eBay. No, I’m not referring to the “worst organised festival ever” in Finsbury Park this summer (though reader, it really was almost as hard to get a pint). This is the world of limited-edition craft beer. 

When a beer is deemed so delicious or boundary-pushing that it gains cult status, it’s rarely put to bed for good. Scarce quantities are produced and releases become eagerly awaited events among fans and collectors.

Few have had the impact of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout (BCS) – the first imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels – which commands round-the-block queues on its annual Black Friday release in the States, and prompts an online scramble around the globe. 

When I visit Chicago to try the fabled nectar, I realise how little I know about the brewery, which was a key player in the American craft beer movement – 2018 marks its 30th anniversary.

My main points of reference are Honkers Ale, Goose IPA and 312 Urban Wheat – all fine for a session – and the brewery’s controversial 2011 sale to AB InBev, the subject of endless column inches and a book; the first “Big Beer” acquisition of its kind.

I meet with some of brewery’s big guns on a sweltering afternoon, on a rooftop towering over the city’s hip/gentrified Wicker Park neighbourhood. I’m shown highlights of the skyline; told the heat is uncharacteristic for mid-September; and offered a beer. I opt for Scavenger, an American wild ale; partly because I know it’s one of the last with a sensible ABV I’ll get on a trip to sample luxury imperial (read: strong) stout. 

Last year, people queued up in Chicago on Black Friday to grab a bottle of Bourbon County Stout (Goose Island)

Mike Siegel, Goose’s head of research and development, tells us it was created for Illinois’ bicentennial with ingredients native to the state, including a yeast strain sourced Shawnee National Forest that was chosen to express terroir, or flavour rooted in a sense of place. And while the 200th birthday seems cute to this European, kicking off with a delicate, wild-fermented ale surpasses my expectations.

So what of the beer we’re here for and its religious following? We’re introduced to it as if an old friend by its creator Greg Hall, son of Goose Island founder John, who in 1992 wanted to really push the boat out for the brewery’s 1,000th batch. The two had been inspired by European styles with their wooden casks and fermenters, and a chance seating at a dinner party led to John acquiring six Jim Beam barrels – all that was left was making a stout big enough to stand up to the whiskey flavour. And how. 

Precious cargo is ferried to the shops for Black Friday (Goose Island)

Fast forward to 2018 (you can watch the full BCS story on Goose Island’s website) and wood-aged, imperial stouts have become an industry standard. We’re in “the age of intensity”, as Greg Hall calls it, and breweries are pouring money into barrel-ageing programmes. But we won’t taste the original until tomorrow – my question is, will the hype be worth it?

* * *

When John Hall founded the Clybourn brewpub in 1988, he was one of few brewers in the Midwest, never mind Chicago. The craft beer movement was in its nascency: California’s Sierra Nevada had been showering American taste buds with hops for eight years – but Hall’s inspiration, in part, can be traced back to London.

Weak, tasteless lager reigned supreme in the States but Hall’s work took him to Europe. “I was blown away by all the different varieties of beer from place to place,” he says. “But what really got me as much as anything was the pub culture in England – that is was so unique as opposed to the States.” 

A trickle of the thick, sweet stout escapes from a barrel (Jo Turner)

The British public house brought everyone together, he tells me, unlike US bars which were aimed at specific groups – sports fans for example. In London, he was a Fuller’s devotee. “I said to myself, why can’t Chicago have something like Fuller’s, and be, y’know ‘London Pride?’.” So he set about making a beer for his city. 

There’s now over 200 craft breweries in the Chicago area, the most in the United States, according to the Chicago Tribune, surpassing even the artisanal arcadia of Portland, Oregon. Many of these are the work of Goose Island alumni – the brewery has a family tree with many branches. 

When in 2001 Hall got a phone call from Glenn Payne, the man credited with bringing American craft beer to Britain, asking for Goose Island beer for the UK, he couldn’t believe it. “I said, ‘Well, that’s like bringing coal to Newcastle.’ But he says no, Michael Jackson (as big in beer writing as his namesake was in music) recommended it,” Hall beams.

The coffee wheatwine variant of BCS (Jo Turner)

The relationship with Fuller’s carried on (the breweries even collaborated on a 30th anniversary ale for Goose), and seems emblematic of the way the US and UK craft beer movements continue to shape each other. 

“Although we were competitive, it was wonderful how welcoming they were,” Hall says. “And now they do a barrel-aged beer! What goes around comes around.”

* * *

The next day I arrive at the piece de resistance – Goose’s Island’s barrel warehouse – via Intelligentsia, the brewery’s coffee partner and “best neighbour ever”. Seems like a mutually beneficial relationship.

The warehouse is a recent addition to Chicago’s West Side, opened in 2014 after investment from AB was directed towards expanding Goose’s barrel-ageing programme. Barrels are stacked four or five high in rows that go on forever, large fans turn lazily overhead to regulate the temperature and the mingling of wood and whiskey in the air is unmistakable.

The full lineup of this year’s BCS and variants (Goose Island)

We have a lesson in cooperage (barrel construction), followed by a healthy dose of Elijah Craig 12-year-old bourbon – whose barrels house the biggest proportion of BCS – and are released among the cornucopia of casks. 

I’ll admit I’m giddy with excitement when we finally have our first taste of Bourbon County Stout, such is the reverence with which it’s been discussed over the past 24 hours. We’re handed a cup of “black dog” to try first – the stout in its unaged form, before it’s exposed to American white oak. It’s viscous, black, robust, an explosion of rich flavours: bitter chocolate, coffee, dark cherry, leather, sticky stone fruit, spice, and with the kick you’d expect from a liquid around 15 per cent ABV (like the vintages of a fine wine, the finished product is different every year).

But with the aged version I’m seduced. That big hit of bourbon is unmistakeable yet the beer belies its strength. Eight to 12 months on wood has mellowed the ale and brought beautiful, soft vanilla and there’s just a touch of fizz. The flavours I picked up before are all there and more, but have been unified by the cloak of oak. 

We also take a whistle-stop tour of this year’s BCS variants – twists on the original. There’s eight in this year – a few regulars such as vanilla (heaven) and others which have made it through Goose Island’s variants challenge, in which staff submit their own recipes. A coffee wheatwine is rich in toffee and caramel flavours, while a bramble rye stout is supremely complex, with cooked berry flavours reminiscent of a malbec.

Getting in there quick on Black Friday (Goose Island)

With limited quantities of Bourbon County Stout earmarked for the UK – and none of the variants as yet – it could take some determination to beat the rush. Would I pay the RRP of £20 per bottle? Honestly? Yes – try it once, at least. It depends on your priorities, but if flavour and experience are among those then I’d say get one, and share it with someone you like.

I ask John Hall when we’re likely to see more across the pond. “Well, people are asking that. They’re also asking when we’re getting more in Chicago,” he laughs. “It’s not as though we’re not trying to make more!”

Is it worth the wait? Try it once, at least (Goose Island)

When I arrived in the city I didn’t know what to expect. I’m wary of Big Beer acquisitions, and the sometimes unfair advantages they can bring. But the folks at Goose Island are past caring about accusations of sellout – they just want to brew. Through their experimental projects, relationships with local producers and more than anything else in their obsession with their prized product, it’s the team’s simple and utter dedication to beer that wins me over.

“I have BCS on the brain every day,” says Mike Siegel. I believe him.

Bourbon County Stout will be available for £20 (16.9oz) in limited quantities at Kill the Cat in Shoreditch and Ghost Whale in Brixton from 9am, and on Beerhawk.co.uk, whilst stocks last, from 1pm, on Black Friday


Wood for you

If you miss your chance or queueing up isn’t your thing, how about a homegrown barrel-aged beer? The complexity and food-friendliness of brews aged on wood have led to a surge in popularity so there are plenty to try – and many more on the way. The Five Points brewing Co in Hackney has 30 barrels and counting in its east London railway arch; variously containing chardonnay, pinot noir and Auchentoshan whisky in their former lives.

“It’s a really exciting development, and something that we’ve been doing for three years now,” founder Ed Mason tells me. “We’re about to release the fourth realisation of this programme which will be an 11 per cent Scotch whisky barrel-aged imperial stout, brewed as our 1,000th gyle (or batch of beer).”

Testing for quality at Five Points Arch 441 (Owen Richards)

An unaged version of The Grand Stout will also be released – they arrive on 3 December (fivepointsbrewing.co.uk). Here are four more wood-aged brews to try.

Innis & Gunn, The Original: a household name, if you could have an everyday barrel-aged beer this would be it – but that’s not to say it isn’t delicious, with caramel, toffee-apple flavours (6.6% ABV, £1.75 for 330ml, innisandgunn.com).

Camden Town Brewery, Beer 2018: the London staple’s annual special brew takes its cue from Belgian beer culture, where large bottles are shared much like wine. It’s spent six months in bourbon barrels and has spicy orange notes. (10% ABV, £7.99 for 500ml, from 19 November on beerhawk.co.uk)

Black Isle Brewing, Systems Theory: a joint effort from Poppels Bryggeri in Sweden and the Scottish Highlanders, this pitch black imperial stout has a heavy coffee and cocoa kick (9.4% ABV, £4.50 for 330ml, coming soon to eebria.com).

Buxton Brewery, Yellow Belly: a celebrated collab with Omipollo in Sweden, this peanut butter and biscuit imperial stout (made without either ingredient) catapulted Buxton up the ranks of darling UK brewers and has a great story too (11% ABV, £8 for 330ml, buxtonbrewery.co.uk).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *