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Bourbon County Stout goose island
Photograph: Courtesy Goose Island Beer Co.

To age or not to age? A beer expert gives us the scoop on Bourbon County Stout.

Here's how long you should hold on to Goose Island's famous stout—and which variants you should drink fresh.

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long

While many Chicago holiday traditions aren't happening this year, you'll still be able to pick up bottles of Goose Island's famous Bourbon County Stout on Black Friday, when the dark and boozy beer (and its many variants) become available at liquor stores throughout the city. In addition to the original Bourbon County Stout, this year's lineup also includes:

  • Bourbon County Kentucky Fog Stout (made with Earl Grey Tea and Black Tea from Kilogram Tea, as well as clover honey from The Honey House)
  • Bourbon County Special #4 Stout (an oatmeal stout made with crystal oats and Intelligentsia Coffee cold coffee and single origin coffee beans from Ethiopia)
  • Bourbon County Caramella Ale (a wheatwine aged in Larceny Wheated Bourbon barrels with apple, cinnamon and caramel flavor)
  • Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout (a spumoni-inspired stout, made with fresh pistachios, cacao nibs and candied Amarena cherries)
  • Birthday Bourbon County Stout (aged in 11-year-old Old Forester Birthday Bourbon barrels)
  • Anniversary Bourbon County Stout (aged two years in Weller 12 Year barrels)

Bourbon County Stout is ready to be enjoyed immediately after you buy it, but some people will age their bottles for several years in the hope that time may allow the flavor of the beer to evolve in new ways. It's a practice that Goose Island doesn't tacitly encourage but seems to endorse by way of its sale of vintage bottles of Bourbon County Stout—the brewery's Fulton Street taproom is currently offering bottles of the stout that date back to 2017.

So, should you open your Bourbon County Stout or put it somewhere dark and cool for a few months or more? According to Ryan Tracy, the owner of Beer on the Wall in Arlington Heights and Park Ridge, there's not much to be gained from aging these stouts. "Goose Island now flash-pasteurizes their entire BCS lineup before packaging, so the positive development you're going to get on these as a result of aging will be minimized," he says.

Tracy also notes that the flavors added to the Proprietor's, Caramella, Special #4 and Kentucky Fog variants have a tendency to fade with time (especially the coffee that's added to Special #4), making it more beneficial to open your bottles sooner rather than later so you can actually experience all the tasting notes as the brewers intended. "I would only recommend aging these for instances in which you want to save something for an upcoming life event, or in the case that the beer flavor seems underdeveloped or unbalanced to you personally," Tracy says.

If you do decide to let some of your Bourbon County Stout sit around for a bit, the original variety as well as the Birthday and Anniversary variants are your best bets, with Tracy proposing three to six months as a "safe" amount of time to age. "In general, once you cross two years, you're playing with fire," he says, noting that more often than not you'll wish you'd drank your beer sooner rather than waiting for it to age.

What can you expect from a beer that's been aged? According to Tracy, the logic behind delaying opening a beer is similar to why a chili or stew often taste better the day after you cook it. Given time, ingredients in some beers can mingle and form flavors that some drinkers might deem more cohesive or less aggressive, though it mostly comes down to your personal preference. When "notes of sherry, wet cardboard and miso" begin to crop up as you're tasting your aged beer, Tracy says it's time to open the rest of your stash as quickly as possible.

You'll be able to get your hands on Goose Island Bourbon County Stout beginning on Friday, November 27 at retailers throughout Chicago (and beyond). To encourage social distancing and discourage the lines that traditionally form for this release, many sellers have already held raffles to sell allotments of the variants. Beer on the Wall is offering in-person sign-ups for its Bourbon County Stout raffle through November 27, with beer distributed the following week. Chicago bottle shop Beer Temple still has some variants available for pre-order and Bottles and Cans is taking entries for a raffle that runs through December 4. Get in touch with your local shop to find out how they're distributing Bourbon County Stout—and don't wait too long to drink what you buy.

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