It’s probably tough to remember a time when there was no such thing as a bourbon barrel aged beer. It all began in the early 1990s (the exact date is debated) when Goose Island brewer Greg Hall decided to give the pairing a whirl. “The collaboration between Knob Creek and Goose Island started more than 20 years ago when my dad, Booker Noe, met Greg Hall at a Beer and Bourbon Dinner and offered to give Greg his very first bourbon barrels for aging beer,” said Fred Noe, 7th Generation Beam Master Distiller.

The creation of Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS) helped put Goose Island on the map and it changed beer culture forever. Not only do fans line up to grab a bottle of the original or its variants every Black Friday, but breweries and fans also flock to Chicago each November to attend the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers (FoBAB). In short, almost every brewery offers barrel-aged brews these days, and it all started with Goose a quarter of a century ago.

Goose released six versions of BCBS this year, and Chicagoans are the only one’s able to access each and every variant.

Reserve Brand Barrel-Aged Stout (Chicago & Kentucky Only!)
14.8% ABV | 60 IBU

Aged in 11-year-old freshly emptied Knob Creek Bourbon barrels (the small batch bourbon created by Noe himself in 1992), Reserve Brand is simultaneously a celebration of Knob Creek’s 25th Anniversary and a toast to the chance meeting that inspired the creation of BCBS.

The barrels infuse notes of charred oak, vanilla, caramel, and smoke. The 11-year-old Knob Creek Bourbon barrels also provide tremendous depth to the stout.

Bananas Foster Inspired Proprietor’s (Chicago Only)
14% ABV | 60 IBU

Brewed by Goose Island brewer Quinn Fuechsl, and aged in second-use five-to-seven-year-old barrels, the “Prop” version enjoys a flavor that reminds one of the classic Bananas Foster recipe. Goose explains, “This year’s Proprietors has balanced aromas of banana, cassia bark, and roasted almonds, and gives a great depth and integration of flavors.”

Don’t worry. If you are not in Chicago, you likely can find versions of this on any number of bottle trade sites.

Bourbon County Brand Original (Nationwide)
14.1 - 14.7% ABV | 60 IBU

The original, jet-black BCBS was originally brewed to celebrate Goose’s 1000 beer batch (probably in 1992). The beer provides delicate booziness in addition to an intense mix of charred oak, chocolate, vanilla, and caramel as well as a smokey flavor and aroma. Goose relied on fresh, unrinsed, five-to-seven-year-old bourbon barrels brought to Chicago straight from the distillery.

Original Barleywine (Nationwide)
14.4% ABV | 60 IBU

The medium-bodied barleywine presents subtle notes of oak, charcoal, tobacco, and vanilla, along with the signature bourbon heat. The combination of the stout flavor with the bourbon booziness is sublime, and it’s the hallmark of the BCBS Barleywine.

However, one change involves the barrels. Goose Island explains, “In years past, Bourbon County Brand Barleywine was aged in third-use bourbon barrels that previously housed our barrel-aged stout. This year’s Barleywine was aged exclusively in freshly emptied, second-use bourbon barrels, so expect this vintage to have a slightly higher ABV and an enhanced bourbon character.”

For those of you like me that enjoy a bit more bourbon-booziness, this year’s Barleywine is for you.

Coffee-Brand Barrel-Aged Stout (Nationwide)
12.9% ABV | 60 IBU

Each year, Goose Island utilizes a different coffee for its BCBS coffee variant, which allows for a unique flavor every time. This year, Goose relied on its next-door neighbor: Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea. “We are using Intelligentsia’s Black Cat Espresso,” notes Goose Island. “Black Cat Espresso was the bean we used in the first Bourbon County Coffee release in 2010 and we are excited to bring it back!”

Blueberry Almond Northwoods Stout (Nationwide)
12.6% ABV | 60 IBU

The Northwoods is a unique blueberry and almond version of BCBS that’s aged in second-use, fresh and unrinsed, five-to-seven-year-old bourbon barrels. “The concept for this year’s National Bourbon County variant has been bouncing around in Goose Island Brewmaster Jared Jankoski’s head for a couple of years. Bourbon County Brand Northwoods Stout combines some of his favorite flavors—blueberry and almond. The addition of almond extract lends a marzipan-like fruity character that complements the blueberry note.”

Early reviews of this version are mixed as is of the case with blueberry-infused beers. It’s not an easy style to master. But, given the unique nature of the beer, it’s worthy of a try. If you don’t want to invest in an entire bottle, feel free to sample it at various BCBS parties held throughout Chicago and the burbs around Black Friday and into the holiday season.

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