Goose Island Beer Co. is based in Lincoln Park, a community on the north side of Chicago. Formed in 1988, it began as a single brewpub and has grown into an international icon.
Founded in 1988 by John Hall, the brewery concept came after a visit to Europe. At the time, craft beer was not a popular idea. So, once Hall returned to his hometown of Chicago, he made it his mission to create “some damn fine beer” for his country too.
The big difference between Hall and many brewery founders is that Hall had never brewed before. He even opened up a brewpub without any restaurant experience. But what he did know how to do was find the right people with which to partner.
By 1995, Goose Island was growing in popularity, in part, due to allowing customers to watch him brew and create his part product. This in-person concept created excitement and ignited an interest in craft beer, allowing him to open a larger brewery plus a bottling plant. In 1999, things were not slowing down, and Goose Island opened an additional brewpub in Wrigleyville.
“In 2007, Goose Island sold 42% of its business to Widmer Brothers, which a year later merged with Redhook to form Craft Brew Alliance.” This partnership kept Goose Island independent while helping to grow their brand in the market.
But 2011 was the year during which both Goose Island and craft beer in general changed forever. That year, Anheuser-Busch InBev purchased the 42 percent stake owned by Craft Brew Alliance along with the remaining 58 percent. The total purchase was valued at $38.8 million.
The acquisition by InBev was massive news in the industry and remains a controversial topic among beer nerds today. However, the deal meant that Goose Island’s beers became readily available in more markets. Staples, such as 312 Urban Wheat and Goose Island IPA, started to flood grocery stores and draft houses across the country.
One of its most sought after beers, Bourbon County Brand Stout, was arguably impacted the most by the sale to InBev. Before 2011, this barrel aged imperial stout was on beer drinkers’ in search of list due to its scarcity. These days, it is still on that list but now much easier to find.
As one of the most historic beers made by Goose Island, BCBS was one of the first commercial barrel-aged beers available in the U.S. This high ABV imperial stout is “aged in a mix of bourbon barrels from a variety of whiskey distilleries” for 12 months. The recipe contains 2-row, black, caramel, chocolate, Munich 10, and roasted barley malts and Millennium hops.
The standard BCBS is the most common version released every year for Black Friday. However, the brewery also produces a collection of variants that change year-over-year. For 2020, the Bourbon County lineup included seven versions:
- Bourbon County Stout 2020
- Bourbon County Kentucky Fog Stout 2020
- Bourbon County Special #4 Stout 2020
- Bourbon County Caramella Wheatwine Ale 2020
- Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout 2020
- Birthday Bourbon County Stout 2020
- Anniversary Bourbon County Stout 2020
This year’s base version has a 14.2 percent ABV and an IBU rating of 60. It was bottled on July 25, 2020 and released on Nov. 26, 2020.
Traditionally packaged in 16.9-ounce bottles, BCBS pours a jet black color with a moderate but lingering tan head and light lacing. Carbonation is acceptable for the style.
As a barrel-aged beer, the aroma contains a hint of bourbon. It is also sweet with notes of raisin and a touch of alcohol. Based on my experience with previous BCBS releases, I had certain expectations for my first sip. However, I was quickly disappointed.
The flavor has a sugary sweetness not found in previous years’ releases and a strong raisin character. There are also some notes of bitter chocolate, but again, significantly less than older releases. It does lack depth at its lowest temperature. But like any stout, it should be allowed to warm and hopefully open up in flavor.
The other significant flaw is the mouthfeel. BCBS is known for having a silky mouthfeel. However, the 2020 version is very chalky and almost gritty. This flaw makes the beer seem very loose and not as refined as I had anticipated.
Despite being over 14 percent, no booze is detectable, and the aging in the bourbon barrels adds only a slight sweetness and not any alcohol burn. It has a medium body but still finishes sweet and chalky, just like the body. As it warmed, the body became fuller, but neither the mouthfeel nor the flavor improved.