It’s a sunny afternoon on what will turn out to be Chicago’s last warm day of year and I’m sitting across a table from Goose Island Beer Co. brewmaster Jared Jankoski with six bottles of 2015 Bourbon County Stout between us.
Jared is so down to earth and friendly that it’s easy to forget that he runs the brewing team at one of the country’s most innovative breweries. He’s constantly shifting credit onto others, downplaying his role… and will go off on 30 minute deep dive explanations on the the most minute details of the brewing process. He’s brilliant. He’s also really proud of the beer that the brewery makes. And it’s easy to see why. Goose Island has been brewing boundary-pushing, genre-defining beer in Chicago since the early nineties, and perhaps the clearest example of that is the beer that we’re about to drink.
To get to the stories behind the bottles, Jared took me through a one-on-one tasting session to talk about the beers’ origins and process, and why every Bourbon County Stout recipe has to inspire excitement in the brewers before they even begin to brew it.
Origin Story: Bourbon County Stout
Matt: Let’s talk about the origins of Bourbon County Stout. Where did this idea for aging beer in a bourbon barrel come from?
Jared: That was a Greg Hall thing. Years back he was staring Goose Island’s 1,000th brew in the face and was trying to figure out what to do about it. He was at a dinner where he was seated next to Booker Noe, who’s a very famous bourbon master distiller. They got to talking and eventually he popped the question to Booker for some barrels because he had the idea to make a beer that was big enough to stand up to being in a bourbon barrel for his special 1000th brew. He obliged and gave him the barrels, Greg wrote this recipe, put the beer in barrels and here we are now.
Matt: Why is this an idea that people react so strongly to? How did it come from an experiment to the place of prominence now?
Jared: Number one, it’s a great beer. Number two, it’s a unique and very difficult beer to make. It’s the original and I really think it’s the best. I always give the disclaimer that I’m not saying this because I work here – I’ve been drinking this beer for much longer than I’ve worked here and it is really, really good. I love when a beer lives up to the hype and coverage it gets.
Matt: What are you looking for when you approach a tasting of a bourbon barrel aged beer? What makes a good example of the style?
Jared: I like to see balance and that’s difficult to achieve. It’s important because the whiskey that was in the barrel previously was very strong, and what’s left in that barrel is a lot of character. If the beer isn’t big enough to stand up to that character on its own, you’re going to have balance issues. In our case, and I think the thing that sets Bourbon County apart from others is that we simply made a really big beer in the brewhouse that stands up and melds well with the first-use whiskey barrels we use.
Bourbon County Brand Stout
Jared’s Tasting Notes: You’ve got soft caramel toffee notes in there. You’ve got some very balanced roast characters. I get a little oak char, a little bourbon, fresh tobacco and leather. It’s all wrapped in this wonderful richness that I really, really like. You get some fusel-y dried fruit notes in the back of the aroma and its got a bourbon finish.
Jared: This is Bourbon County Original. It’s the standard bearer, I suppose. It’s been unchanged over the many years it’s been brewed. It’s the base stout that we brew here at the brewery and ferment out. At the end of fermentation we put it in what we call first-use whiskey barrels, and it’s aged for 8-12 months. After that we take it back out of the barrel, blend it together for a little bit of consistency and from there all we do is centrifuge it and carbonate it and then it goes to bottle.
Matt: How would you describe the beer before it goes into the barrels?
Jared: You get a beer that has some nice roast, that has some very, very deep caramel tones. It’s got appropriate roast that gets heightened by the barrel character, it comes through in a very balanced way. It’s dark, it’s viscous. It’s a harder beer to make that people sometimes acknowledge. Whenever you make a big beer, you’ve got fermentation stressers and things that make making that beer more difficult. It’s tough. You have to have the right yeast and the right technique from start to finish in order to achieve a good non-barrel aged imperial stout.
Matt: What challenges are introduced once you then put that base beer in the barrels?
Jared: The things we start to see in the barrel early on are the whiskey characters – and they can be edgy. They can be a little bit boozy, both aromatically and on the palate. I think you can certainly begin to see a hot, edginess come into the beer within the first couple of months. Some people do not believe in aging beer in barrels longer than that, but what we see is a softening of those edges over time due to the exchanges between the wood and the beer. In place of those edgier notes, you can get some softer, rounder notes that you’ll perceive as a bit more sweet. It can also allow for some of the characteristics of the wood to come through a little more. You start to get things like fresh tobacco, leather, coconut, barrel char – some of the very pleasant whiskey and barrel characters.
One of my realizations this year was that the focus is always on the barrel – which is incredibly important, and there are a lot of beers aged in whiskey barrels but there aren’t any like this. I began asking myself why that is. It’s an easy answer: it’s the base beer. The credibility that this base beer has. The barrels are romantic, they’re cool to look at, you can walk around and smell them but the base beer is consistent.
One of the questions I got asked in the documentary Grit & Grain was if I still get excited about brewing Bourbon County Stout? My answer was, “Of course.” It’s an exciting beer to brew because we know the process really well and it’s a process that all of Goose Island is really proud of. It’s a legacy I’m proud to steward forward and continue on.
Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout
Jared’s Tasting Notes: The base beer works really nicely with the coffee. I get a lot of leather and fresh tobacco notes. There’s a real kind of mute roast and nuttiness to this coffee that I really like. I get notes of dark chocolate on the back end and that nice nuttiness.
Jared: This year, as with every year, we brew a coffee stout with our friends who we share a wall with – Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters. Every year we ask them, “Hey what’s coming in, what do you like?” and every year we get some nice options and we all sit down for a cupping, which is the formal sensory analysis process for tasting coffee. Then they’ll take those selections, bring them to us with a couple of wild cards or things that they feel strongly about as cold brewed concentrates, and we’ll literally sit around a table with Bourbon County Stout to make a blend with a percentage of cold brew coffee and the beer. We’ll all do a sensory analysis where we’ll take our notes and then discuss what we have.
Either we’ll say, “We need to do this all again with some new coffee,” or talk about ones that we like best. We’re always looking for an inspired, passionate response – for something to be galvanizing. We want excitement. We figure if we’re really excited about something, then we’re doing our jobs for the folks that drink our beers.
Matt: How did you land on Los Delirios, this year’s coffee?
This was sort of the dark horse. I was all about it from the beginning – I thought it was unique and interesting, just a different coffee. There’s a nuttiness to it that balances the classic coffee characters, it has a nice roast aroma, and then a little bit of chocolate on the finish. We find every year that there can be a coffee that you really like on its own, but that you really don’t like when you add it to Bourbon County Stout. So part of it is trying to find out what the perfect blend is – it’s really a process of the coffee and the beer together.
Matt: When you’re holding your coffee sensory analysis panels, what are you looking for? How do you know what will work well with Bourbon County Stout?
Jared: Well we don’t know until we run it through the beer. But we do want to see a good integration of the beer and the coffee together. We don’t want to feel like it’s disjointed. Usually we see with brighter coffees or acidic coffees, with bright notes or citrus, which produces dark chocolate and cherry kind of notes when in Bourbon County Stout. We had that three years ago with last year’s variant, it leaned more towards caramely and burnt sugar notes.
In this one, the base beer works really nicely with the coffee. I get a lot of leather and fresh tobacco notes. The previous year it was a little more acidic with a brighter coffee – there’s a real kind of mute roast and nuttiness to this coffee that I really like. So we all came together and eventually decided it would be good to go in this direction.
Bourbon County Brand Barleywine
Jared’s Tasting Notes: I get some alcohol notes on the nose, and some fruitier aromas. Then I get a nice balance of caramel malt and, of course barrel character with that balanced char. There’s a rich malt backbone. You get the coconut and vanilla and the whiskey balanced by the roast character.
Bourbon County Barleywine is a fun one. A few years back we made a beer called King Henry which was a very strong barleywine, a similar strength to Bourbon County Stout, and English in style so not meant to be super hoppy. It was aged in the original Bourbon County Stout Rare barrels. We emptied the Rare out, filled them back up with the barleywine and then aged it for about six months through the summer, the warmer months, so it picked up more barrel characteristics right off the bat.
King Henry went over really well, so we decided to make a barleywine and tweaked it to be a part of the Bourbon County beers. Barleywines tend to be malt forward, so they have those estery, fruitier characters to them, and also some dried fruit, caramel notes — just a nice balance. We don’t age it as long, about six months, and it’s a blend of first- and second-use barrels. There’s still some nice character from the wood, it’s not quite as robust and roasted or in your face. It’s a beer that blends first- and second-use barrels and we hit the mark of where we like it in terms of bourbon character.
Bourbon County Brand Regal Rye Stout
Jared’s Tasting Notes: Very unique. I love the separation of the blackberry and cherry right away, it goes really well with the sweeter backbone. There’s a roasted malt character with a toffee backbone. Salt. You’re just barely able to taste it but you’re aware of it.
Jared: This was a really fun one. I mean, they’re all fun. These Rye variants have become sort of a special canvas for us. Again, we needed to be inspired and passionate or excited about whatever we’re going to do for these beers. This is the first of two, it’s the nationally available variant of rye that we call Regal Rye. The rye piece comes from adding rye to a recipe in the brewhouse and then aging in rye barrels.
Each year we give everyone that wants it some Bourbon County Stout to take home and play around with, see what inspires them, see if they have any ideas that have been sitting in the back of their head that they want to explore. Then everyone brings in their bench top experiments and we drink them. We write our notes down. This year, we were gripped by one, and that became Proprietors but we weren’t gripped by something for the national Rye variant.
So we had to break things down elementally and see what we could do. We started toying around with a couple of different ideas, we grabbed some ingredients that we knew we liked. We tried to come up with something unique, that inspired us and tasted good. Last year we did vanilla, so we felt okay going back into the fruit arena. We settled on sour cherries, luxardo cocktail cherries, single strength pressed blackberry juice — pressed blackberries — and a very light amount of salt. We did that literally sitting around a table with five or six of us. We had these ingredients in front of us so we’d pour some Bourbon County Stout into a glass then add some cherries, then some blackberries. People are sliding beers across the table, “Try this. Try this one. I got a little more of this or I got a little more of that,” and we’re all going back and forth making up individual, single-ingredient examples then pouring them together.
Matt: Was there an “ah-ha” moment where everything came together? Or was it slowly put together piece by piece?
Jared: We kind of all came to the realization together. There was a lot of promise on that table. We basically came to the decision that we were going to blend those four ingredients together, and we felt really good about it on a number of levels. We thought it was unique with the sweet and sour cherries and the blackberry juice. It’s a pretty full tapestry. And obviously salt is something from a culinary perspective that brings out flavors. It was a fun one to put together and once we did, we liked it right away.
Proprietors’ Bourbon County Brand Stout
Jared’s Tasting Notes: Right off the bat it’s earthy, woody. There’s a little bit of nuttiness. It’s really intriguing and different. There’s a real rich nuttiness through the middle that worked out really well here, and a little note of maple. Then you get the tiniest bit of spice from the peppers, a little bit of that guajillo pepper. It’s an earthy pepper, not too sharp or bright.
Jared: This is Proprietors’ Bourbon County Brand Stout. We have a brewer here, Di Rodriguez, who started as an intern. A spot opened up so we hired her as a brewer before her internship was done. She’s awesome, super positive, and very, very passionate about beer. She took her Bourbon County Stout home and put together this recipe.
We have dried guajillo peppers, maple syrup and toasted pecans. She was trying to balance the recipe the same way you would a food recipe, so you’ve got your rich nuttiness, a little bit of spice and a little bit of balance in the sweetness. The character of the toasted pecans, that soft nuttiness, really changes the landscape. The aroma of the guajillo pepper is very earthy. It’s a real pure, peppery aroma. It’s not a very spicy pepper, it’s not about heat, it’s about flavor. That’s how it all came together. She brought in her bench top experiment and that was the one everyone got excited about.
Matt: What were some of the challenges in making this beer?
Jared: In her original recipe, I think she crushed the pecans and used a fair amount and when we scaled them up volumetrically, proportionally it was like 20,000 lbs of pecans.
Matt: Pretty difficult to crush 20,000 lbs of pecans and keep everything fresh.
Jared: Right. So obviously we couldn’t do that. But we did make a vessel this year for infusing ingredients in beer. Like a circulation vessel, some perforated pieces inside it. You put ingredients in and then you flow beer over them. Like a big filter vessel, essentially. We have friends at Kendall College and they helped us out. We toasted 1,000 pounds of pecans, moved them into the vessel. Everybody said, “This is great, we’re going in the right direction… but we need more.” So we had to toast another 1,000 pounds to get the ratios right.
Matt: Why is Proprietors’ only available in Chicago?
Jared: Bourbon County Stout is sold in fifty states. At first, I think there was a little bit of a feeling that we weren’t taking care of the home front, and we wanted to make sure we were. So that’s where that came from. We wanted to say thank you to Chicago.
This beer is the result of the way we approach brewing. We put a high priority in staying relevant and being innovative, and I think it’s really awesome that this came out of someone’s first year being a professional brewer. To be able to steward a group of people or continue the tone set by Brett Porter and Greg Hall for making this place an inclusive place. This isn’t a place where all decisions are made behind closed doors. Brewers are able to contribute to the products they make. I’m really proud of that inclusiveness.
Goose Island Rare Bourbon County Brand Stout
Jared’s Tasting Notes: I get char, a little bit of vanilla and tobacco. Real leathery like a baseball glove. I’ve been fortunate enough to sit and drink this beer a few times…it’s very layered and very complex. I get some tobacco notes. You definitely get vanilla in this for sure. Some nice complex bourbon flavors. A lot of heat, a lot of char. It’s fun to drink. It’s full of depth and complexity and a really long linger. Goes back and forth to the whiskey notes and lingering sugar notes.
Jared: This is Bourbon County Rare. So about seven years ago, there was an emptying of Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old bourbon, and Goose Island was able to get the empty barrels. We put Bourbon County Stout in those barrels and aged it for two years and that became the first Bourbon County Rare. It went over really well for a number of reasons.
And then about two years ago, a message came through the pipe that some 30-35-year-old barrels were available from Heaven Hill. And there was a lot of buzz around the brewery that day and the answer was, “Buy them!” That was pretty exciting. There wasn’t much else to decide: get the barrels in and fill them with Stout.
With a 35-year-old barrel that had whiskey in it, the whiskey would not be very highly sought after all. It would have passed the prime window for aging and would be harsh and probably very alcoholic. Very edgy. Because of that you presume that the barrel itself had some challenging traits to it, there was a lot of differentiation in this lot of barrels.
Matt: Why is that?
Jared: I think it was the character of the barrels and that long aging process. Some were real round and deep, others were edgy and sort of challenging. Some were very hot and others had really fine notes of tobacco and leather. But the Bourbon County Stout base beer is a really remarkable beer and when we took it out and did the blend, it all came together into something we’re really proud of. Some nice complex bourbon flavors. A lot of heat, a lot of char. It’s fun to drink. It’s full of depth and complexity and a really long linger. Goes back and forth to the whiskey notes and fusels and lingering sugar notes. This is the kind of beer that makes me want to sit and think about life.
Matt: How do you think long-time Bourbon County Stout fans will respond to this beer? What is in this that makes this beer so special?
Jared: I think the layered depth and complexity. I think this beer, as it sits, will continue to soften a little bit. As it is right now, aged for two years, it’s got so many layers from the whiskey and the long barrel aging. I’m happy with it, for sure. It’s been an education, a roll of the dice, a lot of patience but it turned out well.
The Future of Bourbon County Stout
Matt: What’s next for Bourbon County Stout?
Jared: We want to make more of it. It’s not fun to tell people, “You can’t get this beer.” We love what we do and the only thing we love more than what we do is sharing it with other people. We want to make more but quality comes first. It’s a challenging beer but it’s also a groundbreaking beer. That’s the real achievement.
The Bourbon County Stout Launch Events
Check out the official 2015 Bourbon County Brand Stout launch parties throughout Chicago! For more information on the bottle release party at Binny’s Beverage Depot (Lincoln Park), go HERE.