To most folks across the country, Black Friday means stampedes of ravenous shoppers violently climbing over one another to get the best deals on flat-screen TVs, gaming consoles and the hottest new holiday items. In the craft beer community, however, the day after Thanksgiving is reserved for something far more significant: the annual release of Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout, the first mass-marketed, bourbon barrel–aged beer, and still one of the most coveted rare bottles around.
To better understand the cultish fervor surrounding this 14% ABV behemoth, we headed to Chicago to chat with the dude who makes it: Goose Island's brewmaster, Brett Porter.
As popular as barrel-aged beers have become recently, it's hard to imagine that the trend can trace its origins to this single brewery just over 20 years ago. But it was as recently as 1992 when Goose Island changed the barrel-aged beer game by aging its flagship stout in casks of used Jim Beam barrels.
Though he wasn't there at the time, Porter recalls the mythical creation moment fondly.
"[Master distiller] Booker Noe came to the brewery and gave us a couple of nice barrels," he says. "I'm a huge fan of the Beam distilleries, because they did a lot to establish bourbon as a high-end liquor. We were the first to really establish a solid relationship with the people that are bourbon barrel experts: the makers, the brokers and the distillers. That's where we'll go and that's how we maintain our quality."
Two decades later, Chicago is the undisputed epicenter of bourbon barrel–aged beers. The city celebrates this status annually with the Festival of Wood- and Barrel-Aged Beer, an unparalleled gathering of the latest and greatest aged offerings, held earlier this month. And Goose Island is at the center of it all, with its own dedicated section of the floor to accommodate the event's longest lines.
Geographic proximity to Kentucky's finest distilleries naturally plays a role in Goose Island's successful barrel-aging program, but the brewery's native climate is actually even more of a factor. "We let the warehouse run to Chicago temperatures," Porter explains. "That's what makes Bourbon County Stout as good as it is. It's the Chicago weather — cold winters, followed by hot humid summers — that causes the staves in our bourbon barrels to bring in and then force out liquid, and that's where the flavor comes from."
And there's a lot of that flavor packed into an excruciatingly limited number of bottles. This Friday, Angelenos can look forward to three expressions of the cult classic: the original Bourbon County Stout, Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout — brewed with Intelligentsia beans — and Bourbon County Barleywine, a 12% ABV, English-style monster with a boozy sweetness that will continue to evolve in the bottle for up to five years.
To the novice drinker, all the madness surrounding Bourbon County might seem a little much. But consider the history and heritage going into every release.
"You listen to the Noe family talk about their whiskey, it's like an adult bedtime story," Porter says. "There is no more appealing an accent than the Kentucky accent that goes with making bourbon. Those guys could read the phone book and you'd go, 'Wow, this is interesting stuff they're saying.'"
The timing of Bourbon County's annual release certainly feels appropriate. Porter sees it as a way of giving thanks to a national legacy, which he obviously admires. "It takes this great American product and we are the beneficiaries of their hard work."
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Yes, we are. ... If we're lucky enough to score a bottle.
Click here for a complete listing of where to hunt down BCS in the Greater L.A. area. Most retailers will stock 4-packs at prices ranging from $20 to $30. Lines of frenzied drinkers are to be expected. Keep it civil out there, beer geeks.