Black Friday in Chicago has been a holiday for beer fans since Goose Island Beer Co. began using the day after Thanksgiving for the annual release of its Bourbon County Brand Stout. One of the reasons for the beer’s success is due to Goose Island’s partnership with local liquor chain Binny’s Beverage Depot, which has a store next to the original brewery in Lincoln Park.
Beer nerds have been known to camp out on Thanksgiving night in freezing temperatures outside Binny’s along Kingsbury Street to secure a place in line so they can purchase a full set of Bourbon County beer. Local bars also make a big deal out of securing kegs and hosting release parties. The beer is more readily available than ever after Budweiser’s parent bought the company and ramped up production with nationwide distribution. It’s very much in the mainstream: For example, Friday, for the first time, Time Out Market, the food hall in Fulton Market, is hosting a special $150 Bourbon County meal with pairings. Black Friday is a holiday for beer drinkers outside of Chicago, too: Axios Nashville has a roundup of local events in Tennessee.
The Bourbon County selections change annually and fans want to make sure they collect them all to enjoy with friends or even flip them on the secondary market. This year’s lineup includes a cherry cola-flavored variant and a version that smells like a strawberry cake. Seeing the success in Lincoln Park, Binny’s has expanded the event to its other locations around Chicago.
Instead of forcing fans to line up outside stores, Binny’s now holds an online lottery that gives winners a chance to purchase the rare beers. However, over the last few days, disgruntled customers have posted complaints on social media, writing that despite winning lotteries, they were locked out of purchasing beer. Upon winning the lottery, customers have until a specific date — in this case November 22 — to buy their beer before their allotment expires. A flood of customers headed online to make those purchases before that date and were instead faced “sold out” messages. Porch Drinking’s Mike Zoller called it a “massive error.”
Complaints are nothing new this time of year with barrel-aged beer fans griping about how breweries and stores sell their beer. Many of these complaints are sour grapes about missing out on a chance to complete their beer collections. But this year’s batch of complaints directed at Binny’s contained a little bit more angst than usual. On one private beer trading Facebook group, a lottery winner who lost out on a chance to buy beer claimed that Binny’s had violated federal law with its mistake and threatened to file a complaint with the FTC. Despite the agency’s regulatory oversight over the alcohol industry, that user didn’t clearly spell out what would make this a federal case.
How did Binny's "scramble to make the situation right?" When I emailed that address, they basically said "Tough luck, buy the classic allocation instead." Seems like if they really wanted to "make things right" they would secure more bottles from @GooseIsland— rockpilesv1 (@rockpilesv1) November 23, 2021
Binny’s Director of Communications Greg Versch fell on the sword. In an email to Eater Chicago, Versch claims responsibility: “We made a regrettable error when sending out our drawing winner emails. It was me — me personally. I made the error,” he wrote.
The store oversold its $259.99 Bourbon County reserve allocation, which would include nine beers including rare beers only available in the Chicago market (Reserve Blanton’s, Reserve 150, Double Barrel Toasted Barrel). Binny’s didn’t realize the error until after staff sent winning emails out and on the afternoon of Saturday, November 20, Binny’s began directing reserve winners to its $124.99 classic allocation which includes six beers included in the reserve, but not the three rare beers only available around Chicago.
“I’ve been doing my best to handle each customer as they reach out and I hope our stores aren’t burdened with too many calls,” Versch writes. “I hope the great beers in the classic allocation ease the bad news for those customers who didn’t get the allocation they wanted. These are world-class beers. We’ve been accused of a lot, but I hope people realize we would never have oversold this allocation on purpose. There is nothing to be gained by not delivering to customers and that’s our priority.”
Binny’s, with 45 stores in Illinois, is one of Goose Island’s biggest customers. Earlier this week, the Tribune published a story about how smaller store owners around town say Goose isn’t selling Bourbon County to them because they don’t sell enough volume.
Goose Island declined comment on the Binny’s snafu. The company’s brewers engage in friendly competitions every year to see which of their recipes get picked for production. Past flavors including one made with tea and a variety that tastes like an orange Dreamsicle. This year, brewers weren’t the only ones who submitted ideas. Goose Island opened up submission for recipe ideas to everyone within the company.
The brewery, like every industry, has been affected by staffing challenges. Labor concerns were magnified further by a report earlier this year from the Tribune about an employee attempt to unionize. A cynic may say opening up recipe ideas to workers other than brewers could be a way to solve labor issues. That’s not the case, according to the company.
“The pandemic has not shifted the development or brewing of Bourbon County Stout in any way,” Goose Island President Todd Ahsmann tells Eater Chicago. “Each year BCS has always been an entire company-wide effort. Part of what makes BCS special is the opportunity to help create a variant which is open to all employees here at Goose Island no matter the department or role. We encourage creativity from anywhere and welcome anyone who has a desire to create great beer.”