Black Friday: The new beer drinkers' holiday

Fans of Goose Island Beer Co. have their own annual Black Friday tradition.

For the fifth year in a row, the Chicago-based brewery is releasing its limited-quantity Bourbon County Brand Stout series of barrel-aged beers on a day better known for big shopping discounts than big beer releases.

"We appreciate that every year we have people that stand in line waiting for the BCBS release," said Andy Goeler, Goose Island Beer Company CEO. "We are constantly innovating and trying to create things that are out of the box, create new beer experiences."

Goose Island Beer Company's Bourbon County Stout
Goose Island Beer Company
Goose Island Beer Company's Bourbon County Stout

Goose Island's Black Friday beer festivities generate a lot of buzz among beer drinkers. More than 500 people lined up at last year's event in Chicago and liquor store allotments often sell out in a single day, if not in a matter of hours.

This year Goose Island is expanding the festivities with Bourbon County-themed events in nine cities, including Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Jacksonville, Florida; Los Angeles; New York; Philadelphia; Phoenix; and San Francisco.

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In addition to the namesake Bourbon County Brand Stout, other varieties getting a national release this year include Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout, Bourbon County Brand Barleywine and Vanilla Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout.

Founded in 1988, Goose Island pioneered the art of aging beer in bourbon barrels when it began experimenting with the style in 1992. Now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Goose Island barrel aging program has grown to become one of the largest in the world and also includes a series of sour beers aged in wine barrels.

Tight barrel supply

Goose Island may have invented the bourbon barrel-aged beer concept, but it still faces the same constraints as the multitude of brewers that have followed its barrel-aged brewing lead. Bourbon barrels are getting harder to source, particularly as the popularity of scotch whiskey has taken off both here and abroad.

"I've heard quotes of up to 98 percent of Scotch going into the barrels now are going into reused bourbon barrels" said Mike Siegel, the brewery's Innovations Manager. "So I'd say 70 plus percent of the bourbon barrel aftermarket is going to Scotland, and probably only about 15 percent to brewers here in the states."

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Goose Island works with multiple suppliers to secure barrels from a variety of sources, which can include distilleries like Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, and Knob Creek.

It's not just a numbers game, complicating the issue is the specific type or barrels Goose Island seeks out.

"There are a lot more of 4- to 6-year-old bourbon barrels available. We tend to go for the 8- to 12-year-old barrels, the more premium barrels. Those barrels are in much smaller quantity," Siegel said.

While the variety in trace flavors left behind in each of the distillers' barrels helps create the unique blend and flavor profile produced as part of the aging process, Mother Nature also plays a significant part of the Bourbon County brewing process.

'It's a Chicago thing'

Beer drinkers can thank Chicago's extremely cold winters and warm humid summers for helping to create the much sought-after Bourbon County Barrel Stout taste. The brewery keeps the barrel-aging room under a limited climate control, looking to take advantage of the extreme swings in temperature.

"We want the bourbon and oak character to pull from the wood, and the expansion and contraction that happens through temperature and humidity changes during the seasons is really something," Siegel said. "It's a Chicago thing. We get more extreme cold to hot weather than just about any other place."

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The seasonal aging process is also part of what makes the brewing process more complex. The need to cover different seasons means the beer must spend a minimum of eight months and typically as long as 12 months aging in the barrel.

For the Bourbon County series, this involves more than 3,000 whiskey barrels. The Goose Island sour beer program includes another 2,500 wine barrels used to age those beers.

Currently there is no high-tech system for tracking the thousands of barrels in use, as they are monitored the old fashioned way: with notes taken on index cards stapled to the barrels.

"We've got some index cards on the wine barrels that every single square centimeter has writing on them, going back to three, four, five years. You can see exactly the kind of the life of this barrel, at least the life it's lived at Goose Island. It's just sort of a paper card history," Siegel said.