Dessert alcohol is nothing new in Chicago — from Marz Community Brewing Company’s paczki stouts to Light the Lamp Brewery’s pie and cereal beers — and yet, I’d never tried Goose Island’s Bourbon County brand stouts.
This year, Goose — owned by the parent of Budweiser, AB InBev — promised tons of dessert flavors, from rice pudding to bananas Foster, and at around 14 percent ABV the stouts were destined to make drinkers warm and bubbly no matter their underlying beer opinions.
Every year Goose Island releases a series of limited-edition bottles and gives the media — from Spy to Patch to Eater Chicago — one of the first sips inside the stately Goose Island Barrel House, a space outfitted for the event in ornate Chesterfield leather chairs, tufted couches, and Oriental rugs, half of which was taken from a local salvage house and the other borrowed from a nearly complete AirBnB. Although the 2023 lineup of six beers is one fewer than 2022, Goose Island made up for the slightly more limited selection with its customarily beautiful packaging.
The 2023 beers are different thanks to Chicago’s record-breaking hot summer. Climate change made the past 12 months the hottest in 125,000 years, and El Niño will likely make Chicago’s winter warmer and drier. Traditionally, Chicago’s hot summers and cold winters suck stouts in and out of the barrel staves. “That in and out as we cycle through the seasons is really what starts to pull a lot of the flavor and develop that beer,” says Daryl Hoedtke, senior brewmaster.
But what happens to the hundreds of barrels in the temperature-unregulated warehouse at Goose Island, as that weather fluctuates and intensifies? Before the tasting, it was snowing, and a week after, it was shorts weather. That won’t just change the Black Friday selection, but likely the terroir of all stouts in the future. “I don’t know that I could really answer the impact it’s gonna have,” Hoedtke says about future stout aging.
Goose Island staff showed the media just what was inside a barrel by herding journalists deeper into the warehouse and actively sawing one open. Sparks flew as the hoop was cut open, spilling 30 wooden staves onto the floor, each blackened on the inside and passed around for guests to smell. That deep char provides notes of caramel, vanilla, and spice that seep into the bourbon and, later, the stout.
The Eagle Rare and Angel’s Envy come in deluxe gift packaging with paper cutouts and interactive mechanisms reminiscent of the recent Newberry Library’s pop-up books exhibit. Both of those varieties are aged two years, with Eagle Rare solely aged in Eagle Rare 10-year-old barrels, and Angel’s Envy in Angel’s Envy bourbon barrels first followed by Ruby Port wine barrels.
If the original Bourbon County stout was a milk-drinking cat (decadent, syrupy, with rich vanilla notes), then the Eagle Rare is a lion — it’s regal, bolder, sharper, and has a lovely kick to it. To continue the cat metaphor, that would make Angel’s Envy a Litleo Pokémon — it’s two or three species at once, and though you see its beer roots, the port barrel plays just as big of a role in the fruity, tannic taste.
Despite the strong flavor promise of the Proprietor’s stout (inspired by rice pudding) and the bananas Foster stout (which uses the same recipe as the 2017 edition of Prop), and the large quantities of toasted rice and banana puree added to each of these beers, it’s the underlying spice that has a staying power. Don’t come into these expecting a dessert-strength drink you’d find in a flavored liqueur or the awful trend of green apple ciders. With the Proprietor’s stout, look for more dried fruit and cassia notes. The bananas Foster stout begins with a bloom of banana, which curls off to enhance and reveal more complex notes of chocolate, cinnamon, and three types of almonds. “We knew rice wasn’t going to carry the beer,” says Mike Siegel, senior manager innovation.
All of these stouts are strong, and almost all of them are intensely rich — please share them with friends and family, partially because the bottles can be so hard to find, and partially because who wants to finish a 16.9 ounce bottle yourself? But the final variety, Backyard stout, a re-release from 10 years ago, you’ll want to keep all to yourself. A lot’s changed to Goose Island since they last made this beer (for starters, Siegel isn’t harvesting the mulberries for it from a park two blocks away), but it’s still an astounding stout. The marionberry, mulberry, and boysenberry cut through the syrupy stout flavor and bring a great balance of acidity to it. You’re getting an effervescent, lighter, fruitier stout, and even though this blended fruit provides a jammy sweetness, it’s not cloyingly sweet-on-sweet. You’re getting more Redwall feast than Crumbl cookie.
We’re two months too early to even be talking about 2024 varieties, but chatter has already begun. Goose Island says chai is a flavor that’s repeatedly come up, but they haven’t found the right balance. Last year, Goose tried a tiki-inspired variant for Proprietor’s. Maybe next year the right chai blend will finally be solidified.