A word of warning: I don’t hate Goose Island and I don’t drop breweries when they sell to bigger guys or sell controlling stakes. I’ve encountered a lot of Goose Island hate since moving back to North Carolina that I didn’t really encounter in Chicago. What changes most people’s minds about what it means for a brewery to “sell out” is having a beloved local or regional brewery go from being independently owned to being part of another company or to no longer have a controlling interest in its operations. Imagine if you will Olde Meck announcing they were going to join Big Beer’s portfolio (DISCLAIMER: THIS IS SOLELY A THOUGHT EXERCISE AND IS NOT MEANT TO SUGGEST OMB IS SELLING OUT). How many Charlotteans would immediately denounce OMB and never go back to their awesome beer garden? How many would really never ever order a Copper or Captain Jack again? Sure, maybe some would, but I bet a lot more people would take the route of, “Yeah, I know, but it doesn’t seem like anything has really changed at the brewery.”
All of that aside, if you are a staunch Goose Island hater and are going to say that any product from Goose Island is awful, then you probably won’t get much out of this post except a furtherance of your smug sense of superiority.
I had seen some recent posts of various social media platforms from people drinking their 2015 Bourbon County Barleywines and Coffee Stouts and the reviews were all over the place. Some people had troll-y posts about how undrinkable the Coffee Stout, but then what did you expect from a sellout like Goose Island? Some were borderline snark attacks, such as “Good…if you like your coffee sour.” Others were more diplomatic, but still contained the caveat not to wait to drink them because they’re not getting better. This year we ended up with 4 barleywines and 1 coffee stout thanks to some Chicago friends who love us enough to deal with the Black Friday line and/or plead with their favorite bottle shops. We had been saying for awhile that we really needed to sample the beers and see if ours were as bad as everyone else is saying they are. Because the experiences seemed to be all over the map, if I wanted to know whether our bottles were bad, I would have to taste them.
My husband and I do tastings regularly. Our tastings usually involve beers one of us has picked out, which means one of us knows what the beers are and the other does not. One morning, I took the 2015 Coffee Stout and a Barleywine out of their respective places in our beer collection and hid them in one of our beer fridges (being both homebrewers and beer hoarders necessitates needing two beer fridges). That evening, I set the bottles out to warm up while Tom was upstairs printing out BJCP score sheets – we were judging our first BJCP competition the next morning and he wanted some practice with the score sheets. The potentially off-flavored Bourbon Countys were perfect practice for the score sheets. Although in a perfect world, we would both be blind tasting the BCs, me knowing what the beers were and Tom not made for an interesting experience.
Both beers poured well and had the expected amount of carbonation and head retention. I was a little apprehensive (grossed out) at the idea of tasting an infected beer – I really had to psyche myself up to try the Cicerone off-flavor samples that had been spiked with “infection.” Grossness be damned, we had an experiment to conduct!
We started with the barleywine. We are both barleywine lovers, so we are familiar with what a barleywine is supposed to taste like. The 2015 Bourbon County Barleywine is an English Barleywine. English Barleywines are typically less hoppy than American Barleywines and are full-bodied, chewy, and malty. They are big, heavy beers (typically 8-12%), and perfect for a cold winter night. In looking at the samples, they looked like you would expect a barleywine to look: a nice, deep amber with nice garnet highlights and legs. While an English Barleywine is supposed to have a very malty aroma, our samples had a somewhat malty aroma, but also a fruity and somewhat sour aroma. Yikes. We moved onto tasting the beer, with me silently freaking out about drinking an infected beer and Tom not knowing what we were supposed to be drinking.
With an English Barleywine, you expect a really intense, layered malt flavor that can range from bready and biscuity to dark caramel and molasses. What we got was more like an Oud Bruin – a lot of dark fruit malt on the nose with some fruity esters and lactic acid. The taste was very similar in that the malt was somewhat grainy and dark fruity, with fruity esters and some lactic acid. It was malt-balanced and had a little bit of tartness. It was somewhat sour, but not as sour as I was expecting. Overall, we both actually enjoyed the flavor of the Bourbon County Brand Barleywine, but would have enjoyed it more had it been labeled as Bourbon County Brand Oud Bruin.
The Bourbon County Coffee Stout was not nearly as exciting, for me mostly because I’ve lost my taste for coffee stouts as of late (NoDa’s Premium Roast Coffee Stout being a delightful exception). Some of the reviews I had seen of the coffee stout said it tasted like sour coffee. However, to me it tasted pretty much like I expected it to. Tom sampled it and immediately said it was a coffee stout. We only had one bottle of the coffee stout, so maybe we lucked out with the bottle we got or maybe the Lactobacillus acetotolerans hadn’t gotten around to doing much damage. Whatever the reason, our Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout tasted like a coffee stout with nothing exotic or gag-inducing about it.
To learn more about the 2015 Goose Island Bourbon County recall, check out my story on The Parti-Gyle page.