For Goose Island, 2016 was an annus horribilis. In January, the Chicago brewery announced that "off flavors" had been found in two of the six releases in its sought-after series of bourbon-barrel-aged Bourbon County Brand stouts. Refunds were promptly offered to all customers who had bought 2015 Bourbon County Coffee Stout and Bourbon County Barleywine. Then, in July, the brewery announced it was providing more refunds for certain batches of the flagship 2015 Bourbon County Stout and the high-end Proprietor's Bourbon County Stout after a lab detected lactobacillus bacteria, which turns beer sour.
These are beers that people look forward to all year, wait in line for hours to buy on Black Friday and hand over plenty of money to taste on the secondary market. Customers were not happy.
It was a pivotal moment for Goose Island brewmaster Jared Jankoski. "The recall was a difficult thing for everybody involved," he said in a recent phone interview. "There was a moment or two" when he seriously wondered whether they should take a year off from the program and "possibly not have Bourbon County Stout in 2016, because there was no way we were going to roll the dice." The potential fallout from another recall, he said, would be horrible. "We're not going to do that ever again. We can't. That was the approach."
Goose Island spent months reexamining its processes. "We wanted to figure out what happened on a very deep level," Jankoski said, which led to the implementation of a new microbiology program at the brewery. The barrel-aging process was changed to use only "fresh, newly emptied" whiskey barrels from Heaven Hill rather than from a mix of distilleries, so Goose Island could track the barrels to their lot or filling date. And the brewery began flash pasteurizing, a process that heats the beer for a short time to kill bacteria within. Pasteurization can be a controversial topic among beer lovers, but Jankoski says that "trained sensory panelists" could discern no difference between regular or flash-pasteurized beer during blind tastings.
"I can assure you the effort that went into those things was insane," Jankoski said. "It was a giant team effort from every single person in the brewery, all coming together to put our best foot forward and make this happen."
Did it all work? I can tell you only that I've tasted one bottle of 2016 Bourbon County Stout, one of four Bourbon County releases this year, and it was as good as ever: a stout with an intense cocoa nose and plenty of chocolate, coffee, toffee and vanilla in the thick, opaque body. There were some sweet-tart berry notes, and a smokiness before the silky smooth finish. A lot of beers this potent - 13.8 percent alcohol by volume - are overcome by booziness. This one, with all the decadent flavors, is not. It is a little sweeter than I remember, though, with less vanilla. It should be ripe for aging.
Many people will be searching for Bourbon County Stout after its Nov. 25 release, and if you find it at a store or bar, grab it.
Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout. gooseisland.com. Suggested retail price, $9.99 per 16.9-ounce bottle.