Beer Review 0570: Goose Island 2013 Bourbon County Brand Imperial Stout (14.2% and 14.9% versions)

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Preface: We’ve already reviewed Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS) once before — last year, the 2012 version scored 98 points. Although it scored highly, it wasn’t really a beer that I was overly enamored with…however, after finding the 2013 version on tap late last year, I knew that I needed to review this beer again. So today we’re going to look at it once more, considering it is (arguably) the pioneer of barrel-aged beers.

There’s a lot of information to dive into before we get into the fun part of this review. First, a little history about Goose Island’s (Chicago, Illinois) Bourbon County line of beers: While barrel-aged beer was around long before 1994, Goose Island made it popular in the United States when they placed Imperial Stout in bourbon barrels to celebrate their 1,000th batch of beer made at the original Clybourn brewpub. After tasting the results, it seemed like every brewery either had or wanted a barrel aging program. Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout achieved legendary status.

Goose Island opened in 1988. John Hall was the visionary, and he was inspired by the beers he had tasted in travels across the country. He started the brewery with the notion that drinkers wanted to see their beer being made, so Goose Island actually started as a brewpub. In 1995, a dedicated facility was built with a bottling plant to keep up with demand.

In 2011, 58% of the company was sold to the world’s largest brewer, ABInbev. As result of the sale, many of Goose Island’s everyday brews are now made in New York. However, Goose continue to produce the more connoisseur-friendly bottles in Chicago, of which Bourbon County is part of.

Released once each year, BCBS typically comes in around a striking 15% ABV (alcohol by volume) and 60 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). The malt bill is impressive (2-Row, Munich, Chocolate, Caramel, Roast Barley, Debittered Black) while there is just one hop used: Willamette. I couldn’t find any information about how long this beer spends inside bourbon barrels, but the bottle suggests it will “develop in the bottle for up to five years.”

Discerning drinkers noticed that 2013’s release included two different alcohol contents — of the bottles I have to sample, the 14.2% ABV version was bottled on August 20, while the 14.9% ABV was packaged on August 29. Why different alcohol contents? Well, with barrel-aging, things like alcohol content tend to be unpredictable. And with federal agencies that control the information placed on beer labels always lending a watchful eye, it pays to be precise when it comes to alcohol content in the beer you make. I thought not only would it be interesting to review BCBS again, but to also review both “versions” of the beer to see if there are any differences. I think this is a very fair take, especially since the beers are only nine days apart in age — and age is a big factor when looking at a brew such as this one.

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2013 Bourbon County Brand Imperial Stout — 14.2% ABV

The 14.2% version pours out a very small, dark khaki head that is soapy and diminishes quickly. Color of the beer is pitch black, like an Imperial Stout ought to be, but it does have lighter brown edges. As I poured, the body appeared clear and free of particles and sediment. As expected for the high alcohol, there was no lacing, but there were some alcohol legs when the beer was swirled.

On the nose, we’ve got a very smooth, sugary sweet brew with a complex bevy of aromas. Up front, sweet caramel, burnt sugar and bourbon greet the nose, bringing in deeper notes of vanilla, charred oak, and sweetened coffee. There’s a light amount of dark fruits, especially raisin and prune, and some toasted marshmallow. While the beer has a stiff scent to it, it’s not overly boozy. When allowed to warm, the vanilla bean notes really come out more, and the bourbon is smooth and plays well with the charred barrel. It’s reminiscent of a beer that’s already been aged for a couple of years.

If you thought the nose was smooth, wait until you have a taste. Wow! Burnt sugar and caramel provide a base layer of sweetness that isn’t cloying but rather complex; then we have creamy marshmallow and vanilla beans to layer on top of it. The bourbon comes out in the middle of the taste, more in charred oak barrel than anything else; this beer finishes with a punch of grape dark fruit, high quality dark chocolate, and toffee. It’s warm but never boozy. Full-bodied, with a thick, foamy mouthfeel.

A classic beer without a doubt, this beer drinks like Goose Island took their sweet time with it. Subtle, nuanced, and complex, an absolute wonderful beer.

Goose Island 2013 Bourbon County Brand Imperial Stout (14.2% version), 98 points. Price: $5.99 US for one 12 oz. bottle.

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2013 Bourbon County Brand Imperial Stout — 14.9% ABV

Bourbon County’s higher octane bottling pours a small, dark khaki head that is soapy and fades within 30 seconds of pouring. The beer is ink black but does have lighter brown edges when held to light; the body is noticeably clear as I poured, with no particles or sediment. Lacing never happened, but there were lots of alcohol legs when agitated.

The aroma has lots of dark fruits; this beer has a grapey edge to it that is somewhat vinous, but also leans to prunes, raisins, and some figs. The alcohol is prevalent, and the sweetness serves to amplify it even more; we’ve got lots of sweet caramel, burnt sugar, and charred barrel, along with spicy bourbon. As it warmed, it seemed the charred notes turned more into smokey scents, amplifying the bourbon even more.

It dominated on the aroma, and it also dominates the palate: the dark fruits open the taste with a thick layer of raisins and prunes mixed with burnt sugar and caramel. Booze is apparent the moment it hits the tongue; middle of the mouth transitions into some hot, spicy bourbon with mere hints of vanilla and smokey char. The finish is vanilla bean, caramel, milk chocolate, and hot, fusel alcohol. The beer is full-bodied, with a thick, creamy mouthfeel.

This beer shows great potential; don’t get me wrong, it’s tasty as it is, but it is overly boozy and a bit much. Even with the young age, it has excellent depth, and should round out nicely in another six months or so.

Goose Island 2013 Bourbon County Brand Imperial Stout (14.9% version), 93 points. Price: $5.99 US for one 12 oz. bottle.

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In conclusion:

Without question, I found the 14.2% ABV version of BCBS superior to the 14.9%. I have two questions: Why not brew it to 14.2%? — and — Why not brew it even just a touch lower, say 11 or 12%? I think the results might be surprising.

You know, sometimes it’s okay to make a beer and have it ready to go right at the point of purchase…

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