BOURBON COUNTY BRAND STOUT, the plain brown packaging proclaimed. I removed the beer from the cooler, mildly surprised to see it carried only four bottles. 'Goose Island Reserve,' I read from the side of the four-pack. Four long necks protruded, '2008' visible just below the cap. At the end of a message regarding the creation of this beer in my hands was a listed ABV of 13% and the magical words, 'Stout aged in Oak Bourbon Barrels.' I was sold.
Before that day in 2008, I was still in the infancy of my exploration of good beer. I lived in a city that had a decades-old British pub that served a number of different bottles from the UK, as well as British-style beers made in America. Nearby, two outstanding wine emporiums stocked interesting beers from around the world. But it was as a Bourbon & Single-malt Scotch drinker that I got into craft beer. In the beginning, most of the quality beers I bought were Belgians. I worked my way through the available Abbey beers before expanding my horizons.
The next phase of my beer journey began in 2007, when I realized a long put-off desire to learn how to brew my own beer. Joining a homebrew club in the summer of 2008 was my first step into a completely different world of beer drinking. I began to learn about different and unique beer styles from all over the world and that it made exploring new beers more than a hobby, but a learning experience(or so I tell myself!). Which brings us back to that plain brown package...
Having decided on purchasing this new beer, I carried it to the counter where a very rude shock awaited me. The cost of the four-pack was $20. $20 for four 12 oz. bottles of beer! I was a little bit mad about this. I actually set the bottles down and stepped away from the counter. I asked if he was joking. He replied that he was not and offered that he regretted buying the beer because no one was buying it. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I, too, did not buy the beer that day.
Luckily, I mentioned the price of the beer in a conversation to a more knowledgeable friend in my homebrew club. He very quickly set me straight on just what it was I was ignorantly complaining about. He reminded me that I had purchased several bottle of Firestone Walker's 10th Anniversary Ale, a 22oz. bottle of which cost $10, pointing out that I was paying more per oz for the FW X than I would for the Bourbon County. He also told me that the beer was amazing. A little swayed by this logical reasoning, but more by the recommendation, I decided to correct my earlier mistake.
It was amazing. Up to then, I had never tasted another beer quite like Bourbon County. Massive coffee roast, but no bitter tannins, chocolate sweetness, mellow oak flavors and the underlying foundation of great Bourbon all combined perfectly - nothing out of balance. And so smooth, no alcohol burn from a 13% ABV beer! I was hooked. At our next homebrew club meeting, I brought a couple bottles to share with everyone. It was a huge hit. I ended up buying four-packs for several people. In the end, I bought 10 of the 12 4-packs my local had in stock. Unfortunately, they could not get more. A new feeling entered my mind at the moment I found out there was no more to buy: GREED. No more would I share this bounty! I would stockpile as much as possible each year, then slowly drink it off as I bought each new year's release! I was now a Collector of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout!
Unfortunately, 2009 rolled around and my local did not get any Bourbon County. I asked the owner to order a case for me, to no avail. So I had to expand my search. Interestingly, 2009 was mainly available in 22oz 'bombers' for the first time (at least in California), something which made it seems a little more special and good value (I'm not sure why, something about a bigger bottle just seeming more special?). Unfortunately, there was very, very little available.
2010 was the last time Bourbon County Brand Stout was a shelf beer in Santa Clara County. I remember wandering through a store and seeing 18 four-packs just sitting on the bottom shelf of a display of German beers and thinking, 'I'll just grab a couple.' Not knowing what was about to happen, I actually passed one on to a friend before going back for a couple more. Which were long gone. From there and everywhere else I looked. Looking back at 2010 is when I kick myself the hardest. I had experienced great difficulty the year before and I had the opportunity to buy up to 3 cases! #FOOL
The final nail in the coffin came in the summer of 2011, the worst possible news: Goose Island was being bought. Sold out for almost $40 million to The King of Beers. I can remember turning instantly on Goose Island and BCBS and for half a second I even considered pouring out all the bottles I had stored in my cellar! Fortunately, I was not at home when this destructive impulse occurred and by the time I was, the feeling had passed. In the end, I decided I would stop buying BCBS from Anheiser-Busch, but even this decision was taken from me after AB decided not to distribute 2011 or 2012 BCBS in California. I could have traded for them, but I was still so depressed, then ambivalent about the whole thing that I didn't bother. I figured my days of enjoying BCBS were over.
Over the last 2 years there have been many news stories, interviews and rumors that claim Goose Island is making much more Bourbon County Brand Stout - enough for the whole country, even. I have read that 2013 is supposed to be the year that distribution rolls back out to the West Coast. So far, many of the Goose Island labels have been moved out of Chicago and are now brewed at other AB plants, freeing up time & space for Bourbon County. A return to California does seem plausible. Does this make me happy? I'm not sure. Am I still upset about the sale to what is now Anheiser-Busch InBev Grupo Modelo? Well...
A couple weeks ago, a friend emailed me with a bit of news from a brewing podcast, in which Goose Island brewers were talking about all the amazing (and expensive) tools they now had access to through their parent company: apparently they had learned how to accentuate specific flavor profiles in their Belgian-style Saison by manipulating the fermentation process of the 'wild' yeast, Brettanomyces. I love sour beers, so this should have been happy news for me.
Instead, I wrote back, 'I read this and rather than becoming excited, all I could think was 'fuck AB'.'