For my first blog post on my new InfiniteBruner.com site, I think the most fitting topic is the beer that changed the course of my life: Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout.
Long before its purchase by AB InBev, Goose Island was a well-established brewery (since 1988) operating two brewpubs on the north side of Chicago. I’d spent some time at the Wrigleyville outpost, mostly before or after Cubs games (Wrigley Field sits about a half-block away), and knew it mostly for its 312 wheat beer and Cubbie Blue, a blueberry ale that was unlike anything I’d tasted elsewhere. The brewery’s experimental beers were mostly sideshows to the main event, items of curiosity for the adventurous tourists and the aficionados that already knew what GI was up to. So at that time, a beer like Bourbon County Stout, which barely even touches the store shelves these days because it sells out so quickly, would sit on tap for months.
I sat down at a table at the brewpub on May 15, 2007—I remember because it was my birthday—and basically just looked for the highest ABV beer on the menu. You have to remember, these were my early days in craft beer, when the “high-end” stuff I might get was Shiner Bock or the aforementioned 312, and my fridge was always packed with Bud Light. I enjoyed a dark beer from time to time, but honestly had no idea what I was doing with the kind of options Goose Island was presenting. Anyway, I don’t remember the specific stats—I’m assuming it was somewhere in the vicinity of 12-14%, as it is today—but on a night where I had full intention of starting the party early and keeping it going for a while, BCS was an easy choice. And then…
The waiter sat before me a thick, wide, bulbous glass (what I now know is a snifter) full of… well, motor oil, I thought. It had this dark brown, chocolate-coffee colored, thin layer of bubbles on top, and it smelled like whiskey and fudge and vanilla… and I was completely intimidated. But I took a sip, and in that moment, the rest of the world just disappeared. I had opened a door, seen what was on the other side, and knew there was no going back. Vanilla, cocoa, booze, and a touch of coffee, that thick, luscious mouthfeel, and the warmth of the alcohol… I was experiencing magic.
I look back now and wish I’d appreciated what I’d discovered a little bit more. The status quo remained for a while—I would buy a bomber of BCS and take it home to share with family and friends at Christmas, and I even remember being at a USC watch party (my wife’s thing, I’m a Razorback through and through) there and getting pints of it… after which I swam home—but the variants started showing up, craft beer started exploding, and then the AB InBev purchase of Goose Island happened and suddenly Bourbon County was scarce and expensive. I resorted to eBay a couple times before finally figuring out some systems to keep a few bottles in stock without having to spend a fortune. Now, if we’re in town for Thanksgiving I’ll quest out for a four-pack, maybe trade up with a buddy for the Bourbon County Barleywine, but it has lost some of its joy, its feeling of being mine. Still, Goose Island Bourbon County Stout continues to be the one beer that always amazes me, that never disappoints, that always feels like going back to where it all started.
Because that’s what it is: It’s where it all started.
JAB – 7/23/15