Goose Island Bourbon County Stout (BCS) is easier to find than ever before. First launched back in the mid-'90s, the beer—considered the original bourbon barrel-aged stout—used to be legendary not only for its luscious whiskey-tinged flavor but also for how difficult it could be to procure. Goose Island now has a massive warehouse dedicated to barrel-aging, meaning scoring the beloved brew feels almost too easy: I've gotten it on draft at the airport. But though no longer as physically scarce, Bourbon County Brand Stout remains rare for another reason: It's one of the few products from a brewery bought out by Anheuser-Busch that still maintains its hype and—outside of the occasional hiccup—its quality, year after year.
"There's always talk about how Goose Island has 'sold out' and certainly there's a halo of that around the beer, but the reality is our partnership with Anheuser-Busch has only enhanced and grown the Bourbon County Stout brand," Goose Island Beer Co. Brewmaster Keith Gabbett tells me. "Anheuser-Busch understands what this beer means to Goose and the overall craft community and really lets us do what we need to do to preserve the prestige and heritage of the brand."
According to Gabbett, the brand's consistency comes from sticking to its roots. "Every year our first priority is to perfect the recipe [former Goose Island Brewmaster and BCS creator] Greg Hall brewed over 20 years ago. Without nailing the original recipe, there are no variants and no BCS," he says. "The overall process of BCS has not changed."
Since 2010, Goose Island has been consistent with another BCS tradition as well: releasing the beer on Black Friday. Though Goose Island wasn't the first brewery to dedicate a big annual event to a single beer's release (Hall admits that idea came from 3 Floyds Dark Lord), Goose Island is known for staking its claim on the biggest shopping day of the year. And the turnout on Black Friday still serves as a barometer for the Bourbon County Brand's popularity.
"Year over year, [BCS] continues to be one of the best beers on the market and that's not just me saying it, that's our fans saying it by waiting in line to try it," says Gabbett. "BCS is something that is very sacred to us and the authenticity we uphold is what keeps our fans coming back."
Another reason fans come back is the variants: mixing the brand up with different recipes or special barrel-aging processes. This year, Goose Island will release eight versions of the heralded stout: Original, Double Barrel, 2-Year Reserve, Reserve Rye, Proprietor's, Café de Olla, Mon Chéri, and the only non-stout in the bunch, Bourbon County Wheatwine Ale.
The number of variants has grown significantly since Anheuser-Busch bought out the brewery in 2011—doubling over the past eight years—and Gabbett believes that isn't a coincidence. "Anheuser-Busch and Brewers Collective [AB's craft beer arm] have always been supportive of BCS. They know we have crafted a recipe for success and their partnership only helps us," he explains. "We're able to put added emphasis on innovation that keeps us ahead of the curve, and that holds true with BCS. Anheuser-Busch has also provided us with the funding, resources, and employee benefits that we could not have provided on our own. Through the cross-brewing of our core brands like IPA, Next Coast, and 312, Anheuser-Busch has allowed us to focus more of our attention on brewing and aging BCS. In recent years we've greatly expanded our barrel aging facilities, brought in new brewing equipment like our mash filter and developed a few new tanks—we like to call them 'Dorothy's'—to help us create even more variants."
And yet, when a brewery "sells out" the big concern isn't necessarily about getting more of the beer: In theory, that's a good thing. Instead, the worry is that a brewery's quality will decline: maybe from cutting corners to increase margins, overextending itself, or the like.
Gabbett believes that, for BCS, overextending itself is harder than it sounds. "While we have expanded our production to keep up with the demand, the reality is BCS is a labor intensive beer from start to finish so there's going to be a cap in what we can create and still match our high standards," he says.
As for a decrease in quality for other reasons, well, that's up to the drinkers to decided, but Gabbett says Goose Island is attempting to head in the other direction: making BCS better and more interesting. "We're going to keep making BCS the best beer possible by remaining true to the character of original and pushing expectations with our variants," he tells me. "We've really just started to scratch the surface of what's possible by highlighting our partnerships with distilleries, focusing on different barrel types and innovating our aging techniques. We'll continue to explore different ways to showcase the character of the barrels, combine ingredients to create new flavors and seek out new processes that allow us to make even better beer."
As usual, this year's Bourbon County Stout and variants will be released on Black Friday, both for those waiting in line in Chicago and for everyone else across the country.