The craft beer world has been beset of late by news of buyouts and acquisitions. Recently, San Diego craft beer powerhouse Green Flash Brewing purchased cult-favorite local brewer Alpine Brewing Company — creators of such sought-after trade bait as Nelson, Hoppy Birthday and Duet. This is a rare example of a craft brewery merging with another craft brewery, but most craft beer fans are more concerned about the acquisitions made by the giant multinational corporate beverage companies like SABMiller and AB-Inbev.
The latter company also made news recently when they purchased Oregon’s 10 Barrel Brewing, and much beer-geek hand-wringing resulted. It was reminiscent of the kerfuffle that erupted in 2011 when AB-InBev purchased Chicago’s Goose Island Brewing, ruffling the feathers of fans of that respected craft brewery. The local uproar soon spread across the country, with many brew pundits claiming it would be the end of Goose Island as we know it, and many craft drinkers vowing to never raise another pint of Goose Island beer.
Many of the fans upset by the buyout were particularly worried that Goose Island’s most beloved beer—their groundbreaking barrel aged Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS)—would be turned into a cash-cow by the new corporate overlords. The newest batches of BCBS and its variants are about to hit the streets, and I had the chance to taste the beers with Goose Island’s Brewmaster Brett Porter to see if the “crafty” brand has lost any of it’s artisanal appeal.
While covering the craft beer industry, I’ve sat down to interview brewers just about anywhere you can hold a beer and a notepad, from using an empty keg for a seat on a brewery’s loading dock to lavish secret back rooms at bars. But until my appointment with Goose Island, I’d never been hosted in the conference room of a toney Beverly Hills PR firm. I was ushered into the room, complete with a pretty nice view of Mid-City, and sat down with Brewmaster Brett Porter, Goose Island Communications Manager Ana Serafin, and Jessica Smith, a representative of the brewery’s PR firm. Was this a taste of Goose Island’s new corporate culture? Were they throwing more money at marketing than the brewery? Would I be getting a polished shpiel from corporate shills? I was anxious to find out.
A trio of Bourbon County bottles sat on the expensive looking white-washed table that dominated the conference room, and after introductory pleasantries were exchanged, we got down to business of sampling and talking about the beers, and most of my fears were assuaged. Porter, perpetually shifting in his Restoration Hardware chair, was madcap and unfiltered. I could tell that it delighted him when one of his off-color comments or unquotable statements made Serafin and Smith exchange concerned glances. And there were many of both during our hour-long tasting. Instead of the buttoned-up company man that I’d feared, Porter was a fun-loving brewer serious only about beer, hops, water, and his award winning beer chili.
“I [expletive] hate American barleywines,” Porter proclaimed as he poured a dram of the Bourbon County Brand Barleywine. “You should not be able to detect an aroma hop in a barleywine.”
His version is English-style, and the base brew spends six months in third use bourbon barrels in Goose Island’s massive barrel aging facility. The beer is deep and rich with a malt character that demonstrates what a “lingering finish” really means. There’s just enough bourbon character to play off the sweet fruits and subtle spice, and the beer is frighteningly drinkable for an over 12% ABV monster.
“It fits nicely into the family,” he told me before pouring a glass of the main event brew: 2014 Bourbon County Brand Stout.
The inky-black beer is the flagship of Goose Island’s barrel program, which occupies a 135-thousand square foot building in Chicago filled with over four thousand wine and spirits barrels. (It’s about a 50-50 split, with the wine barrels being used to produce Goose Islands line of sour ales.) The building is so large that Porter jokes about being able to “see the curvature of the earth” when you enter it (and I’m sure this is true after a few “quality control” samples).
Porter (who is also an audiophile in addition to brewer, cellarman, and cook) is serious about his sensory experiences, and we had a good geek-out while sniffing and sampling the new batch of stout.
“[Chicago had] a milder winter and a warm summer, and I think that had a profound affect on the beer,” Porter said as we sniffed at the 14.4% ABV brew. “There’s less of the hot alcohol flavor—that witch hazel taste—in [the new batch].”
The 2014 BCBS is big in roasty flavors with a less-than-subtle bourbon kick at the back end. After spending a year in barrels, the beer also picked up a touch of pleasant oxidation-flavors like a mild sherry. It’s a deep and complex beer, and it packs a punch. There’s a sweetness under the roasted flavors, and a touch of oak that results in a toasted marshmallow vibe that I really enjoyed.
“It goes great with s’mores,” Serafin told me, and I can imagine that sitting around a campfire with a snifter of BCBS would be a perfect pairing.
We also sampled last year’s version of the Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout featuring Intelligentsia coffee. Each year Porter selects a different roast for the brew, and after sampling 20 different coffees he decided on Rwanda Zirikana beans for the 2014 blend. In addition to the flagship BCBS, the Barleywine, and the Coffee infused version, Goose Island will release two other rare varieties this year: a vanilla version using a blend of vanilla beans from Mexico and Madagascar, and an exclusive spiced version that features cocoa nibs, cinnamon, cassia bark and coconut water. The beers launch on Black Friday at events across the country; check out the Goose Island website for details.
The whole Goose Island buyout has been a tricky subject for me to come to grips with. On paper it sounds like a bad situation and the idea of Big Beer companies encroaching on craft beer’s “turf” makes me a bit uncomfortable. But whenever I spend time with the people actually making the beer at Goose Island, I end up feeling better about the situation. And for my taste buds, the beers (at least the Bourbon County Brand line and the Goose Island sours) have actually improved in the three years since the buyout. The corporate checkbook has helped Goose Island create one of the biggest beer barrel aging programs in America, and if you’re one of the many beer fans who say that “the only thing that matters is what’s in the glass,” then you’ve got no reason not to put the Bourbon County beers at the top of your shopping list on Black Friday.