Goose Island Bourbon County Stout — Goose Island’s annual barrel-aged special release — will celebrate a decade this fall as a post-Thanksgiving tradition for beer fans when the brewery will roll out the 2020 offerings on Friday, November 27.
“I love that people are still this excited about beer and beer releases — you see it even now on a weekly basis with breweries, whether it’s an IPA or what have you,” Goose Island president Todd Ahsmann said. “For me to just know that we’ve helped contribute to the culture of beer through Bourbon County Stout and that it’s still going and the category is just evolving and that we can bring spirits drinkers in is just so exciting to me.”
Goose Island has been producing Bourbon County Stout since 1992, long before Anheuser-Busch InBev acquired the brewery in 2011. The Chicago craft brewery began packaging the stout in 2005 and first experimented with variants in 2009, according to the brewery’s website. The tradition of introducing it on the day after Thanksgiving began in 2010.
The company has long stayed mum on the volume of Bourbon County Stout it sells each year, but Ahsmann said its barrel-aging facility houses between 13,000 and 17,000 bourbon barrels.
“Some could be sitting, waiting for two years,” he said. “Some could be that year’s; some can be just for some small, one-off experiment.”
This year’s release includes the original Bourbon County Stout, an imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels from various distilleries, and six variants:
- Bourbon County Kentucky Fog Stout, inspired by the London Fog tea latte drink with Earl Grey tea and black tea from Kilogram Tea and clover honey from the Honey House;
- Bourbon County Special No. 4 Stout, which boasts an oatmeal stout base, Intelligentsia Coffee, and bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup from Bissell Maple Farm in Jefferson, Ohio;
- Bourbon County Caramella Ale, a wheat wine aged in Larceny Wheated Bourbon barrels and flavors of apple, cinnamon and caramel;
- Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout, a stout inspired by spumoni, a frozen Italian dessert with cherries, pistachios, chocolate and vanilla flavors;
- Birthday Bourbon County Stout, a stout aged in barrels that once held Old Forester Birthday Bourbon;
- And Anniversary Bourbon County Stout, a stout that aged for two years in Weller 12-year bourbon barrels to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Goose Island releasing Bourbon County Stout on the day after Thanksgiving.Inspiration for some variants comes directly from Goose Island employees via a contest that begins in early January. Interested employees can take original Bourbon County Stout home to experiment with.
“These are brewers, these are people that have been drinking Bourbon County all year long,” brewmaster Keith Gabbett said. “They’ve seen how the previous year’s releases have gone. They know what works and what doesn’t work.
“And they have some pretty wacky and creative ideas. Some of them are really, really, really good right off the bat,” he continued.
The company narrows down potential winners through several rounds of tasting, which is “kind of awesome,” Gabbett said.
“You come in on a Wednesday and you taste through 30 different BCS variations,” he said. “You see everything’s good and then you hit No. 20 and your palate just fades.”
Fatigued palates or not, the staff agrees with Gabbett on the day’s awesomeness.
“It is one of the days where I think I hear the most from employees,” Ahsmann said. “And people are just like, ‘man, we have really, really cool jobs.’”
This year, three variants have come from Goose Island employees’ imaginations. Brewer Paul Cade got the idea for Bourbon County Kentucky Fog Stout from his tea-loving girlfriend. Lab technician Joey Tidei created Bourbon County Caramella Ale, reminiscent of a caramel apple, to celebrate his favorite fall flavors. Brewer Emily Kosmal came up with Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout, the spumoni-inspired offering, quite literally in her sleep.
“I think about BCS so often, that sometimes it appears in my dreams. I had a dream that I was in the Goose taproom serving spumoni ice cream and BCS,” Kosmal said in a press release. “The moment I awoke, I knew that was it! Spumoni would make a fun new variant. As an Italian American, spumoni has always been my favorite flavor of ice cream. Notes of chocolate, sweet cherry, pistachio, and vanilla paired with the rich, oaky, bourbon base of BCS is the dessert of my dreams.”
Beer drinkers are repeatedly straying to the spirits industry. For the week that ended August 1, market research firm Nielsen reported that off-premise sales of spirits grew 29% over the same time last year, more than double the beer industry’s 13.9% growth rate in the same period. The Bourbon County Stout family shepherds new beer drinkers into the fold, Ahsmann said.
To tout the beer’s connection to bourbon in pre-pandemic times, Goose Island participated in whiskey festivals and poured Bourbon County Stout for spirits-sipping attendees.
“They drink this beer and they really do consistently say, ‘It made me rethink what beer can be and how I approach beer,’” Ahsmann said.
Bottles of Bourbon County Stout are coveted by collectors and beer traders, who might never even uncap them. Untold numbers could be sitting in basements or cabinets across the country, waiting to be drunk. Goose Island encourages cellaring the beers for up to five years, and released a vertical pack last year so drinkers could sample the 2019, 2018 and 2019 vintages side by side. However, some adjuncts in certain variants may not hold up, Gabbett said.
“If you hold on to it for too long, you may not get what we originally intended it to be,” he said. “But you’ll still get a really nice Bourbon County.”
Putting out a highly anticipated release year after year might seem stressful, but the combination of the Goose Island team’s creativity and the brewery’s relationship with bourbon distillers and their specialty barrels help.
“To me, the challenge is coming up with something new and interesting every year, and I think that’s also where that enjoyment comes in, where you get to really dive into a different take on it,” Gabbett said. “Like with this year’s Kentucky Fog — adding Earl Grey tea to Bourbon County is, in my mind, one of the more unique perspectives on what a BCS variant can be, and it blends together so beautifully.”
Ahsmann, whose career with Goose Island began in 2007, said he’s “given up being worried that we’re going to run out of ideas.”
“Because every year there’s something like [Bourbon County Kentucky Fog Stout] and it’s so surprising. That doesn’t sound good on paper, but it just turned out to be amazing,” he said. “I’m like, ‘I bet we could do that forever,’ I’m sure.”