By Jesse Valenciana
To some, black Friday is that terrible time of the year where big box retailers are spitting out shit at rock bottom prices for people who don’t know how to shop online. The ratio of consumer trampling death stories to Buzzfeed or Mashable articles on your Facebook feed hovers around 3:1. But to beer geeks, Black Friday is the best excuse to take a break from yelling at strangers through online beer forums and drag themselves bleary-eyed into the real world – it’s the annual release of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout lineup.
In what is becoming a yearly (and delicious) ManBQue content tradition; I put together a group of people for a formal tasting of this nectar of the beer gods. This being ManBQue, we aimed for a varied group of people, so as to not get caught up in the circle jerk-type banter that can sometimes come from having too many self-identifying craft beer aficionados in one room. This year’s team fit the bill perfectly.
Jesse Valenciana: Author, Goose Island beer marketer and humble genius
John Carruthers: Marketing guy by day, cookbook author by night… but also by day
Amy Guth: Digital media maven, baroness, bourbon lover
John Scholl: Marketing genius, recently Redeye-famous, homebrewer
Emily Carruthers: Lover of BCBS, puts up with John Carruthers
John Meske: Beer slinger, podcasting cowboy, user of words he can’t define
Bourbon County Brand Stout (13.8 ABV)
This year’s BCBS was quite different from previous years, coming in at a much milder 13.8 percent ABV than last year’s 14.9. The nose on the beer was slightly boozy but it certainly didn’t taste as hot as the 2014 version. Emily said that last year’s gave her a tinge in the jaw from the alcohol.
The BCS poured black like motor oil and had very minimal carbonation. I personally felt this year’s was not as thick as last years but it still coats the palate very nice and evenly while finishing fairly dry. Collectively, the group seemed to really get a good amount of raisin, chocolate and licorice flavor. Amy noticed hints of cherry that seemed to come out towards the end.
Food Pairings: John C. felt a flan would go well with BCBS to compliment and play off the rich sweetness on the palate. A flourless chocolate cake was also suggested so as to accent the chocolate notes in the beer.
Bourbon County Vanilla Rye (13.6 ABV)
The last time Goose Island used vanilla as a flavor for a BCBS variant, it ended up being a huge pain in the ass for the brewers and the brewery on the operations side, but a huge hit among beer lovers. The 2010 BCBS Vanilla Rye is that “white whale” to many beer lovers, so the news of a 2014 vanilla variant was welcome.
The nose was very strong and almost candy-like, so the assumption was that the first taste would have been vanilla heavy and driven. The first sip certainly did not disappoint, but to our surprise there was quite a bit of spice on the front of the palate from the rye barrel aging. It showed a massive contrast to the 2010 iteration, aged in straight bourbon barrels. BCBS Vanilla Rye was thinner than I expected. It had a nice amount of sweetness both on the palate and nose. I liked the spiciness and the dry finish was a welcome surprise.
Food pairings: The first thing that came to mind was apple pie, with sweet and cinnamon notes providing a complementary touch. If you’re thinking more adventurous, try BCBS Vanilla Rye with a kimchi dish.
Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout (13.4 ABV)
Although the BCBS Coffee is a yearly variant, the coffee bean used in the beer, sourced from Chicago’s Intelligentisa Coffee, changes annually. This year’s batch made use of a cold-brewed Rwandan coffee known as Zirkan. Intelligentsia describes the coffee bean as having a ripe melon, honey, and brown sugar flavor. The melon didn’t really show up and I felt the honey and brown sugar helped keep the beer mellow. There was a nice cold-brewed coffee bitterness to it that balanced well with the base beer. That gave it a rounded off, low acidity finish; Amy perfectly described it as reminiscent to wet fall leaves.
Food pairing: BCBS Coffee is a big, albeit mellow, flavor that would go great with a grilled flank steak dish or smoked meats. If you want to play off of the coffee element more, have your BCBS with a breakfast dish. It would go great with a maple bacon dish or anything accompanied by homemade country gravy.
Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (12.1 ABV)
BCBS Barleywine is made in third-use bourbon barrels, meaning that bourbon has already been aged in the new charred barrels and a first batch of Bourbon County Brand Stout has been aged and extracted. While the majority of American barleywines tend to be hoppy and made with a neutral malt, the BCBS Barleywine is made in the sweeter, more balanced English style.
I was anticipating the BCBS Barleywine to be much boozier than it turned out to be. It poured sweet and fruity, reminiscent of a plum wine. Everyone agreed with Emily dubbing barleywine the moscato of beer due to the presence of palate-forward fruit notes.
Food Pairing: Since the Barleywine was still pretty big and sweet, a hearty lamb dish seems appropriate to cut the sweetness with big, rich flavor. Boar or other game might also provide interesting notes, if you’re of a mind to try something different.
Bourbon County Stout Proprietors
We certainly left the best for last. Bourbon County Stout Proprietor’s is Goose Island’s Chicago-exclusive release. From the taste of this year’s batch, Goose Island loves Chicago more than ever. This is the second year Proprietor’s has been produced, and a slightly different approach is planned for each year or production. Last year’s was made with roasted coconut that led our tasters to dub it the “liquid AlmondJoy.” This year’s was aged in Rye barrels with cassia bark (an east Asian tree related to the Sri Lankan “true cinnamon” Ceylon), cocoa nibs, panela and a simple syrup made with coconut water.
A strong sweet scent – dessert aroma, esentially – emanated immediately as I poured. There was a level of bitterness via the cocoa nibs and spice from the cassia that kept the sweetness in check. The harmony of that many strong flavors was an impressive achievement. Someone brought up Mexican hot chocolate as a comparison, and I couldn’t have agreed more. Proprietor’s had a subtle head and good lacing on the glass. It coats the tongue with a memorably silky texture that I can almost feel while I type this.
Food Pairing: Get yourself a pint of vanilla ice cream, lock the doors and go to town. If you’re not a fan of dessert or eating with elastic waistband pants – and here I thought this was America – whip up a light fish dish and you’ll be just as satisfied.