Like ceremonial bagpipes or the sounds of broken tasting glasses, nothing exemplifies the spirit of Autumn Brew Review like my annual Goose Island Bourbon County Stout tasting. Each year, I make my way to the Goose Island booth, stand in line for 15 minutes, and marvel as the slowly deteriorating day is refreshed with a quick shot of boozy, dark stout.
Except this year, that wasn’t the case. Goose Island didn’t bring any Bourbon County Stout.
Fast forward to last weekend: Beervana, in the parking lot of Monk’s House of Ale Repute. Many of the night’s beers had shown their face at Autumn Brew Review, making a short stop in South Dakota on their way to bigger and bolder beer festivals. Even noted recluse Surly showed up for a few hours. The heavy hitters all made a splash - Odell was there, as was Grand Teton and Deschutes.
And there, in the back, stood the Goose Island taps. Tucked away, next to the Lolita and Minx, was a tap of Bourbon County Stout.
Festival season had been saved.
Well, “saved” is awfully relative, I guess. It’s not as if we were lacking for heavy stouts. Beervana alone served barrel-aged versions of North Coast’s Old Rasputin, last season’s Odell Bourbon Barrel Stout, and Goose Island’s own Big John Imperial Stout, not to mention Outer Darkness from Squatters and Black Butte XXIV, a heavy stout from Deschutes. If you wanted a beer you could eat with a fork, it was available.
This seemed to be the trend at Autumn Brew Review, too. Heavy stouts may be losing their luster compared to everyone’s new darling - the wild/sour ale - but you were certainly in the minority if you didn’t trot out some kind of super-heavyweight 8%+ ABV stout or porter.
Other stouts and porters aside, Bourbon County Stout continues to shine above the rest. It’s full-bodied. It’s boozy without the burn. It’s like drinking the richest coffee and the darkest chocolate at the same time, just without the coffee and chocolate - a kind of husky and smooth darkness that defies explanation other than to say, “That beer is very dark and heavy, as if drinking the end of a black hole.”
Dark. Heavy. Delicious. And, like a black hole, impossible to see. I mean, seriously. I want to buy some of this. WHY CAN’T I FIND IT ANYWHERE EXCEPT IN THIS BAR PARKING LOT?
Making sense of Bourbon County Stout’s sudden scarcity requires a look into the economics of Goose Island’s distribution channels. Goose Island is an Anheiser-Busch holding, and while they continue to run independently, their distribution patterns have changed drastically. Those of us outside of the Chicago area are getting more and more of their year-round beers (think 312 Wheat, Honker’s Ale and vintage styles like Matilda), and while the big stuff has increased in production - the Chicago Tribune reports that there will be five times as much Bourbon County Stout as in 2011 - it’s being kept closer to home.
There’s a reason I couldn’t find any Bourbon County Stout at Autumn Brew Review: it hadn’t been released outside of Chicago, yet. My Beervana sample was from 2011, a keg that I still can’t believe lasted the full year, given everyone’s desire to drink all of it immediately.
Bourbon County Stout continues to be appointment beer. Its release in Chicago results in thousands of bottles sold to collectors who then cellar it for who knows how long. Here in South Dakota, we’re a little luckier. I saw four-packs sitting at Taylor’s Pantry months after release last year - a combination of midwest apathy and a high sticker price (you can expect to drop over $20 on a four-pack). This is the perfect storm: you can get some of the best beer ever made without having to stand in line and fight for it.
What’s more, Bourbon County Stout is the type of beer that gets better with age. Not that I’d suggest that - it’s too good too keep for too long. It’s reportedly being released to the midwest the week of November 26, which means we’ll get some just in time for holiday shopping season. My suggestion: crack it open sometime in December or January. Invite some friends over. Break out some tasting glasses and appreciate the cold, the season, the scarcity and the darkness of a great imperial stout.
Today’s tab: Bourbon County Stout (bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout) - 14.5% ABV, from Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago, IL