For the past 25 years or so, Midwesterners have celebrated barrel-aged beer season, when fans line up outside breweries, liquor stores, and inside bars to buy this year’s versions of what’s become an annual rite of fall and winter. While other regions, like the West Coast, focus on other barrel-aged beer styles (like sours), the Midwest’s frigid wintry temperatures make barrel-aged stouts one of the perfect ways to warm up.
Barrel-aged beers are simply beers stored in wooden barrels. The beer picks up the flavor of the whisky, wine, or any other previous alcohol stored in the barrel. Depending on variables like how long the beer has been aged, the type of wood, and the weather conditions, the beer will taste different. Brewers also add other flavorings, like coffee, vanilla or fruit. Beer fans go crazy for these limited-edition brews annually, enduring frigid temps and waiting in lines outside to guarantee they’ve secured an allotment during a bottle release. The prices can soar in the secondary market to triple digits for a 22-ounce bottle.
These high-ABV stouts, hovering around 12 percent or more, make the snow and ice tolerable for fans. White Claw Hard Seltzer — which is made in Chicago — may have made for a fun summer, but its effervescence isn’t what hearty Midwesterners want during a polar vortex. There’s a reason Chicagoans prefer boozy and stirred drinks while the rest of the country wants a margarita.
There’s an adrenaline rush for those who hunt for these beers, calling up liquor stores, making friends with store clerks to find out when they’ll receive shipments, and bragging about purchases on social media. But when the beer is readily available at a local grocery store, the hunt isn’t as exciting.
“The past couple of years breweries saw there was more and more demand, so they made more and more,” said Laura McSay, beer director for Chicago’s Fifty/50 Restaurant Group. “That made certain brands less elusive. If you can find it at Jewel, does that make it fun to go for it?”
McSay was referencing Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, the prime example of a Chicago barrel-aged beer: full of woody flavors, tobacco, and a thick mouthfeel. Goose Island first tapped Bourbon County in 1995 — though the beer label cites 1992 as the debut.
Goose Island president Todd Ahsmann talks about how much he loves the fandom surrounding his company’s cherished brand. When InBev, the parent company of Anheuser-Busch (the makers of Budweiser) bought Goose Island in 2011, locals worried how that would impact Bourbon County. The program’s been relatively untouched, and there’s a friendly competition among Goose Island brewers every year to submit beer recipes in hopes management will select theirs for production.
InBev has increased distribution across the country in markets like New York and Philadelphia and is about to distribute it globally, Ahsmann said. Goose Island operates pubs in London, Shanghai, Seoul, Sao Paolo, and Monterrey, Mexico. For the first time, Bourbon County will make it to those markets next year.
“The rest of the world has caught up to craft beer,” Ahsmann said.
The challenge for Ahsmann is to balance InBev’s desire to sell as much beer as possible without betraying the craft beer fans who made Bourbon County popular. This is a sensitive subject, as Chicagoans can be possessive of homegrown products. In this case, Chicago Tribune beer writer Josh Noel doesn’t see why anyone would knock Goose.
“They’d be foolish not to send over Bourbon County, this prized brand that’s made and aged in Chicago,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they want to serve that in their pubs globally? They’d be crazy not to.”
The beer is now abundant enough where customers could order food made with it. An ice cream float made with Bourbon County Stout is on the menu at Goose Island brewpub. At Fifty/50’s Roots Handmade Pizza, the menu includes a pizza with Bourbon County Stout-braised short rib. Earlier this year, pastry chef Chris Teixeria of Fifty/50’s Steadfast was part of a dinner at New York’s James Beard House where he used 2017 Goose Island Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout in a banana cake with milk chocolate whipped ganache and banana peel ice cream. Teixeira incorporated the beer, which was aged in bourbon barrels with bananas, roasted almonds, and cassia bark, into the ice cream and the cake.
Noel’s an expert on Goose Island’s growth. Last year, he released Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business. It ruffled so many feathers that Noel wasn’t invited to a Bourbon County media tasting held earlier in October. According to Noel’s tweet, Goose Island told him they were uncomfortable with him attending the tastings. Noel said he ran his tweets past his editors at the Trib before posting.
I’d be posting my review of this year’s Bourbon County beers right about now, but @GooseIsland declined to invite me to last night’s media preview. First time in the 10 years I’ve covered beer for the Chicago Tribune. I was told the brewery "wasn't comfortable" with me attending.— Josh Noel (@hopnotes) October 23, 2019
Jolly Pumpkin Brewery, the Michigan-based company with a Chicago location in Hyde Park, specializes in barrel-aged brews with more of a focus on sours. Founder Ron Jefferies sees more competition than ever.
“I think what’s really happened is that a lot of smaller breweries have a barrel-aging program,” he said. “It’s a requirement now.”
Those breweries include Chicago’s Begyle Brewing, whose Barrel-Aged Imperial Pajamas won a gold medal at this year’s Great American Beer Festival. But it’s still hardly an even playing field between big and small breweries, thanks to marketing. Noel gives credit to Goose Island for creating well-marketed Bourbon County Brand events: Its annual Black Friday beer release draws huge crowds, as does Proprietor’s Day, a one-day festival celebrating the Chicago-only release of the Bourbon County variant that comes in a baby blue box.
Another annual event that draws crowds is the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers (FOBAB), scheduled for November 8-9 in Chicago. The 18th annual fest features a beer lineup of 229 breweries from across the country. Danielle D’Alessandro, executive director for Illinois Craft Brewers Guild, the group that hosts the event, lauds the creativity in the beers. But even though this year’s lineup includes exotic entries from Canada and Argentina, she acknowledges ticket sales have been more sluggish than usual.
D’Alessandro sees room for barrel-aged beers to expand their reaches outside of the typical male-and-bearded craft beer fan. That’s especially prevalent in Chicago, home to the James Beard Foundation Awards, which has become a destination for culinary tourists. Beer lovers share the same level of enthusiasm.
“There’s a passion for having a culinary experience, being able to taste something that you’re likely never going to try again,” she said.
Grand Rapids, Michigan’s Founders Brewing is also known for its barrel-aging program. Earlier in October, Founders canceled its annual bottle release party at its Detroit brewpub for Canadian Breakfast Stout, a beer made with maple syrup. The brewery has been caught in a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by a former employee. Leaked portions of a deposition were made public last week with testimony from a Founders executive that raised eyebrows in the beer industry. That executive claimed that he didn’t know if the African-American employee who filed the complaint was black: “I don’t know Tracy’s lineage, so I can’t speculate on whether he’s … if he’s from Africa or not.”
On Thursday afternoon, Founders and that employee, Tracy Evans, announced a settlement. Terms weren’t disclosed. But many drinkers said that the testimony was damning enough for them to swear off Founder’s beers. Chicago’s Fifty/50 Restaurant Group had previously purchased several kegs of Founders barrel-aged beers to sell at its 17 bars and restaurants. Caught in a public relations crossfire, Fifty/50 is donating all of its Founders beer sales to a charity, the Polished Pebbles Girls Mentoring Program.
Like Goose Island, Founders has a big-beer owner in Mahou San Miguel. Spain’s largest beer maker bought Founders in August. Noel doesn’t see the Founders purchase having as big of an effect in comparison. Anheuser-Busch is a behemoth that occupies a unique position in America’s beer culture, but drinkers’ anger against the company is selective.
“People are anti-Anheuser-Busch and Goose Island, but only until Bourbon County comes out,” Noel said.