Mention Goose Island Beer Co., and a superfan may bore you to tears with facts about the Chicago-based brewery, the history of its first location and even some details about a few of its first beers.

However, start a conversation with a more casual craft beer drinker about the same subject, and chances are the first thing that he or she will think of is the brewery’s most famous creation: Bourbon County Stout.

Brewed with 2-Row, Black, Caramel, Chocolate, Munich 10 and Roasted Barley malts as well as Millennium hops, the barrel-aged stout has become one of the most recognizable brands in the craft beer industry, and Goose Island has only increased its popularity by choosing to release the various versions on only one day every year, specifically the day after Thanksgiving that is otherwise known as Black Friday.

While the numerous incarnations of stouts get the bulk of the press, the brewery introduced a brand new style of beer to the Bourbon County line-up in 2018 with the addition of Bourbon County Wheatwine 2018, a wheat wine-style ale brewed with two-row and malted wheat before being aged in bourbon barrels that previously held Heaven Hill bourbon for more than four years. That release was followed the next year by Bourbon County Wheatwine 2019, a wheat wine-syle ale brewed with two-row and malted wheat before being 100 percent aged in 100 percent in bourbon casks that previously held Larceny Wheated bourbon from Heaven Hill.

Perhaps one of the more interesting additions to last year’s Bourbon County lineup was not a stout, but a wheat wine-style ale. Specifically, it’s Bourbon County Caramella Wheatwine Ale 2020, a wheat wine-style ale aged in barrels that previously held Larceny Wheated Bourbon and conditioned on apple, cinnamon and natural caramel flavor, the latter of which was added after aging.

According to Goose Island, the brewery’s lab technician Joey Tidei created this variant as “a tribute to his love of seasonal flavors.”

The seven Bourbon County variants released in bottles last year were:

  • 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

After opening my bottle, I am a bit surprised at just how murky the Bourbon County Carmella pours, and the flat brown color that it exhibits does not help make it any more visually appetizing. There is a half finger of brown head that quickly dissipates, leaving almost nothing but the slightest trace of a ring around the edge of the inside behind. Aroma wafting up from the glass is a combination of strong sweet caramel, green sour apples, cinnamon, biscuits and graham crackers along with a small bit of vanilla and oak.

After noticing the aroma, I know there were going to be issues in the actual profile, but I was not prepared for what I tasted when sipping the Caramella 2020 for the first time. My palate is immediately inundated with a massive flavor that reminds me of caramel-dipped green apples you might find at a small-town fair, which clashes significantly with the finish that is full of extremely aggressive caramel sweetness mixed with some sourness. The end result is an extremely unbalanced—and dare I say, disconcerting—experience, with the flavors present on the palate and finish fighting each other for dominance and the drinker losing in the end.

The overall amount of carbonation is prickly on my tongue and the alcohol becomes more noticeable in the profile has the beer warms, and although I begin to taste additional notes like oak and bitter cinnamon—on the palate and finish respectively—the caramel sweetness also increases in strength, leading to more balance issues until I stop drinking.

Goose Island Bourbon County Caramella Wheatwine Ale 2020
BREWERY: Goose Island Beer Co.
LOCATION: Chicago, Ill.
STYLE: Barrel-Aged Wheatwine-Style Ale
ABV: 14.6 percent
IBU: 60
PRICE: $19.99
RELEASE DATE: Nov. 27, 2020
AVAILABLE IN: 500ml bottles
I have stated before a number of times in reviews on this website that apple is a very difficult flavor to incorporate correctly into just about any style of beer. While there are a small number of beers that toe the line almost perfectly—like the first couple of incarnations of Prairie’s Apple Brandy Noir—if a brewery uses too little or ages it too long in apple brandy barrels, you end up with a mess of flavors in the profile that fight one another every step of the way, which in turn leads to a wildly unbalanced profile. Unfortunately, the 2020 Bourbon County Caramella Ale may very be Exhibit A when it comes to examples of the latter: while the palate is dominated by caramel-covered green apples, the finish features a cloying amount of sweetness tinged with a noticeable sour note. The situation does not get any better as the beer warms up, and while I am a big fan of giving beers more time to meld if needed, I honestly don’t think that will help this release.
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