Last year was a no good, very bad year for one of the country’s most beloved and best beers. Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, the beer that drinkers set alarm clocks to snag on Black Friday, the beer that consistently receives perfect ratings on review sites, ran into, well… issues.
It was infected.
Now that sounds bad. But consider a few things. First—and this is not the greatest argument in Goose Island’s defense—not all of the Bourbon County Stout bottles that went out had anything wrong with them. Many were just fine. Second, infections do happen. Drinking an infected beer won’t harm you. It will taste off, maybe a bit sour, but it won’t harm you. Finally, Goose Island did offer refunds. While that shouldn’t deserve a pat on the back, some breweries—normally far smaller than Goose Island—have let infected batches slip out without ever uttering a peep. The Chicago-based brewery, which was purchased by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2011, launched a phone number (1-800-GOOSE-ME) and a system for people to mail in the neckbands on their bottles if they matched a certain production date in exchange for a refund check and, in some cases, a t-shirt. It was the right move, but for the fans who waited in line, traded for bottles, and spent more than the suggested retail, it didn’t fully ease the pain.
Now we approach Black Friday again. Again beer drinkers will line up in front of liquor stores before the doors open in hopes of buying America’s most legendary barrel-aged stout. Will less people show up this time around? That remains to be seen, but what is certain is, this year, the beer they are buying will not be infected. Why? Well, following last year’s debacle, Goose Island went ahead and pasteurized Bourbon County Stout.
Now flash pasteurization isn’t new—some of the breweries that can afford to do it, do it—but it does mark the first time Goose Island has tried their hand at it, and it is a change in a formula that has worked many times over for the brewery’s most well-regarded beer. The beer is now heated to reduce the number of potential problem-causing micro-organisms and cooled rapidly to safeguard against future issues. The issue, for some, however, is future issues. Many like to age Bourbon County Stout, taste it years after its release to see how it’s developed, even set up verticals with bottles from sequential years. Having been pasteurized, there is a fear the beer will not develop like past versions. Instead of changing over time, these BCBS lovers fear this year’s will basically stay the same, or at least age slower. There are also those that believe they can actually taste the effects of pasteurization on a beer, as they note a sort of stale taste after a beer has been pasteurized.
While we can’t speak to how this year’s Bourbon County Stout will taste in 2020, we can tell you what it tastes like now, as the folks at Goose Island were kind enough to send a bottle. Honestly, this year’s standard Bourbon County Stout is as fantastic as ever. If there’s any discernible difference from previous years, it’s, at least in our opinion, the level of sweet toffee and molasses you pick up. It leans a tad sweeter than we remember. All those roasty notes are still there; all that subtle smokiness is still present. It’s slick and creamy and goes down far too easily. It drinks wonderfully. Do we pick up any stale note that was the byproduct of the pasteurization process? We don’t. When it comes to how it will taste in the future, we have a hard time believing it won’t develop just like any other Bourbon County Stout, as most of the changes are probably thanks to oxidation, not yeast and bacteria.
Will this promise of quality be enough to win back any sour fans? We don’t know. We do know, however, that we’re using our refund check to buy a few bottles.