Bourbon Barrel Genius


THE SESSIONS #138 BEER BLOGGING FRIDAY The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. 

The founders of the event, Jay Brooks and Stan Hieronymous, state that it is “an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic.”

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Functional Art


I simply find barrels fascinating. The fact that we can take something as simple as a wood plank, fashion it in a way that can create a liquid-proof container is amazing. And yet, the wooden barrel has been around for some 2,000 years. I guess much of my amusement is that I don't have enough confidence in my own woodworking skills so that I hold this functional art in such high esteem.  

Beer aged in a bourbon barrel, or any liquor barrel for that matter, gets my attention. I love the complexity that this additional element brings to the flavor of a beer. Of course, working as a professional forester for 40-years helps develop a natural attraction. The white oak (Quercus alba) of which most domestic whiskey barrels are crafted from, has been a favorite tree for as long as I remember. Strong, majestic in form, and full of utility.

I'll Have a Bourbon

I discovered the short film prepared by Goose Island entitled Grit and Grain. It's about the making of their famous Bourbon County Stout in a series of chapters, each detailing a particular step in the process, from forest to barrel to glass. In the film they were showing where they procure some of their white oak, featuring a logger harvesting white oak trees in Missouri and the company that turns the logs into barrel staves. I have a colleague who is a forester in Missouri and so I sent him the link to the video. His response was, "Yeah, I know those guys."

My friend knew the people, but he didn't know the beer. Not long after that, we were in a conference together in up-state New York and I thought it would be fun to bring a couple of the Goose Island Bourbon County Stouts that I happened to be aging. The first evening of our conference I brought out the two stouts. And I was I was pouring the two versions into the glasses, one of the other colleagues said, "No thanks, if I want to have a bourbon I’ll have a bourbon, if I want to have a beer I’ll have a beer." So my thought was I guess you don’t like Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups either.

Jim Koch or Goose Island

As with many, Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS) was my entry into barrel-aged beers. This style has captured the attention of beer drinkers and thus brewers. Today it's not uncommon to see beer aged in used wine or rum barrels. Each adding their own flavor and layers of complexity to the recipe.

There are at least two accounts that I've come across that tell the story of the first bourbon-barrel-aged beer.

Jim's Story

Goose Island clearly makes the claim that they were the first to create a bourbon-barrel-aged beer. But is that true? On the label, it states Since 1992, and I excepted that. Why not? Then, I was listening to a presentation by Jim Koch of Boston Brewing and the Sam Adams beers where he told his story with great detail, of how he was the first to put beer into a whiskey barrel and sell it. Triple Bock sold for the then-unheard of price of $100 per case. 

Jim told his story at a SAVOR 2014 salon. He tells about how bourbon barrels were cheap and were cut in two and sold as planters at Home Depot. He got the idea of using those barrels to age and flavor his beer but there was a problem. Whiskey and beer are taxed differently. So would this be a whiskey or a beer product? Jim got his lawyer, took off to Washington DC and worked out the details. That was 1992. It's a fun story (audio download).

Goose Island's Turn

There are two claims to which was the first bourbon barrel aged beer. Jim Koch's story has subtly been written about as part of other Jim Koch highlights. Goose Island's is a bit more to the point, even making the statement right on the bottle — SINCE 1992. So which is it?

In 1992 Greg Hall, wanted to brew something truly unique for the brewpub’s 1,000th batch, he just needed inspiration. Then a chance encounter between Greg and Jim Beam’s Booker Noe led to Goose Island acquiring the barrels for what was to become the world’s first bourbon barrel aged beer. The young brewmaster soon found himself in the uncharted waters of bourbon barrel aged beer.
— Grit & Grain

Jeff Alworth has written many books on beer including The Beer Bible and The Secrets of Master Brewers and co-hosts a favorite beer podcast Beervana with Patrick Emerson. He wrote an article for All About Beer on the Bourbon County Stout in November 2016 entitled Bourbon County Brand Stout: The Original Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Beer. The article tells the story of this beer's beginning but Jeff also casts some doubt to the date of its genesis. It seems a common theme that BCBS is an milestone beer even if the originating date is somewhat in question.

Regardless of the year, one thing no one disputes is how influential this beer was. Even adjusting the date to 1994, it was the original bourbon-barrel-aged beer and set the course for all those that would come later.
— All About Beer, Nov 2016 - Jeff Alworth

Jeff writes how Greg Hall, the Goose Island brewer, has admitted that the date of the first BCBS always a bit of a guess. He offers some probable dates and why it may be 1994. But the result is still that "it was the original bourbon-barrel-aged beer." Wait, what about Sam Adam's Triple Bock? 

But Wait, There's More

The enduring appeal of BCBS is a testament to its legendary status among beer aficionados. Goose Island has been making Bourbon County Stout since 1992 (or 1995, depending on whom you ask), first as a unique way to mark the 1000th batch of beer brewed at its Clybourn brewpub, and since as a yearly celebration of creativity and craftsmanship.
— October, Michel Kiser

Selling Out

Josh Noel, in his article for the Chicago Tribune, Bourbon County Stout Is A Legend, But Probably Not As Old As We Think, took the issue head on.

In preparing for his book, Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business, Noel provides a near thesis and comes to the conclusion it must have been first brewed in 1995. 

Hall told me that one of the inspirations for Bourbon County was Sam Adams Triple Bock, an 18 percent alcohol strong ale aged in whiskey barrels. That beer had people marveling at its huge boozy nature reminiscent of port or brandy. In response, Hall said, he wanted to age a beer in a bourbon barrel that was unmistakably beer. The problem? Triple Bock was released three times: in 1994, 1995 and 1997. Hall was certain that Triple Bock had been released when BCS was first tapped. Which makes 1992 an impossibility. 
I’ve concluded that there’s almost no chance that Bourbon County Stout came into this world in 1992. Dozens of interviews and hours of research point to the first keg of Bourbon County Stout being tapped in 1995.


Wood & Beer: A Brewer's Guide
By Dick Cantwell, Peter Bouckaert

Does it matter who crafted the first bourbon barrel-aged beer? No, not really, but it does make for interesting discussion. When I hear a thing that doesn't sound exactly right, I want to know why. It's unfinished business and it must be brought to some satisfying conclusion — at least in my mind.

The real point is to enjoy the beer, right? If you want to drink a Goose Island Bourbon County Stout it is likely that you have one in your cellar aging for the appropriate time and group of people. Or you can wait until the Friday after Thanksgiving when the next year's release comes around. If you want to taste a Boston Beer Company's BBA triple bock, well good luck. Unless you happen to have chosen the right salon at the 2014 SAVOR event or have a good friend with a really deep beer cellar you most likely never will.

I've begun reading Wood & Beer with great interest and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the mesh of these two elements.

I will say I will continue to read, write and drink on this theme of barrels and beer. And thank whatever genius that brought this alchemy into being. Cheers!