Something has been bothering me for a very long time.
Wait, let’s try that again–many things have been bothering me for a very long time, and I have no reason to believe that is going to change anytime soon. What I mean to say is that something has bothered me for a long time that I recently decided to to something about. It has a little to do with the “micro vs. macro” debate, a little to do with the concept of “beer snobbery,” and a lot to do with making sure I’m not just being an asshole.
You see, I have a lot of friends who are very into beer, and follow many great beer industry folks on various social media platforms. I know and respect their palates; I know they’re not prone to hype, and have a breadth of experience that allows them to convey their impressions clearly. In short, these are people who know what the fuck they’re talking about.
What’s been bugging me is that I keep finding myself not ‘getting’ what many of them see in a specific beer. I’ll tell you what beer that is, but I want to warn some of you ‘fussier’ types that I may or may not be committing some kind of ‘craft beer’ blasphemy here, so you’ve been warned.
I just don’t like Goose Island Bourbon County Stout all that much.
There, I said it. Publicly. I don’t hate it mind you; I just don’t get it. I don’t get what the big f’ing deal is. I don’t get the raves, the scores, the madness every year when it’s released. But every year, I hear from friends and see beer industry folks whose opinions I respect talk about how great BCBS is. So where’s the disconnect?
I don’t know who the phrase might be credited to, but one of my favorite sayings is “if you look around the room and don’t know who the asshole is–it’s you.” When it comes to BCBS, was I simply the asshole in the room? I decided to try an experiment to find out.
The importance of calling yourself out, and acknowledging your personal biases
I have a hard time talking about Goose Island. No matter what opinion I express I sound like a ‘craft’ zealot/douchebag–but the simple truth is this:
1. I only ever got to try 312 and Matilda before the buyout, and liked but didn’t fall in love with either. This is a valid enough opinion, but now it sounds like I’m the ultimate Beer Hipster, in that “I didn’t like that brewery before you ever did/didn’t.”
2. The Goose Island lineup hasn’t won me over as I’ve gotten to try more of it. As AB/InBev (ABI) rolled out Goose Island in Virginia, I tasted through the lineup a couple times to see if I wanted to work with their beers. Frankly, I didn’t find anything overly compelling, and what I would have bought I would have only been buying to give myself access to BCBS later, as BCBS is the only GI beer I get asked about at work with any regularity.
3. When I talk about GI beers I do like, they’re always the ‘wrong’ ones. I think Honker’s Bitter is a perfectly good go-to beer–in fact, I kinda dig it. I really enjoyed the GI Harvest Ale, and if I hadn’t been carrying the (fairly similar to me) Southern Tier Harvest at the time I first tried it, I might’ve brought it in. Visiting the Better Beer Authority crew for a blind tasting, I found The Ogden tasty, if a bit hot on the finish. But it seems like anytime I say this, the person I’m talking to looks at me like I’m malfunctioning. I can’t win when it comes to Goose Island.
So here’s the deal: in light of ABI’s recent purchases of 10 Barrel and Elysian, there’s been a renewed discussion of “craft vs. crafty,” and whether it should matter to us at all who owns how much of the breweries we love, as long as the product is produced at a high quality and is, for lack of a better term, good. Since the Goose Island buyout, I’ve worried that my opinion of their beers has been clouded by my feelings about their ownership. I worry about being that guy, doing a disservice to the breweries I enjoy and want to see succeed.
When I came across a bottle of 2014 BCBS during a visit to Norm’s a few weeks back, I decided to put together a blind tasting to settle in my head once and for all whether I just wasn’t a fan of the beer, or if I was being that asshole who ABI is getting one over on with that dumbass Super Bowl ad of theirs.
Gather ye Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts, while ye may
I wanted a lineup of similarly ‘big’ Bourbon barrel-aged Stouts, which I thought would be tough to put together. But after buying my bottle of 2014 BCBS, things just kinda fell into place: my friend Mike Sollom from Sly Fox had previously given me a bottle of their Barrel-Aged Nihilist Imperial Stout (which they had hoped to have gotten Virginia label approval for in time for its release last year, but unfortunately could not); and I had recently bought a bottle of Schlafly’s 2013 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout as I hadn’t tried it in some time. I also wanted to include the Schlafly because of it’s fairly regular availability. To that end, I originally planned on including a bottle of the excellent Blue Mountain Dark Hollow, as it’s available year-round and also a personal favorite–but fate stepped in when Mike Kraus generously gifted me a bottle of Concealed Darkness; a 10.6% ABV version of Dark Hollow using twice the oats and Chocolate malt, and aged in Bourbon barrels for a full 12 months. I was dying to try this beer, and figured this would be as good an occasion as any.
(Note: If you’re into that sort of thing, look for a separate post with full tasting notes later this week. Today, we’re waxing philosophical.)
The tasting itself: surprises and self-doubt
With my Stouts in place, I asked my wife to help by setting an order for the beers (referring to them as “#1, #2, etc…) and pouring them for me one at a time, a little bit at a time, over the course of about an hour so each would have a chance to warm up and display different characteristics. After running through the lineup a couple times and revisiting some for the sake of clarifying notes/for the hell of it, my wife asked me to guess which beers were which before the big reveal.
“#1 is the Sly Fox.” I knew that immediately, and was right. I’ll get into this more in the post with my notes, but I don’t know if that bottle of BA Nihilist was right. I got zero Bourbon note off of it, and there were aromas and flavors I’d have expected from an older beer from the cellar. I’d suspect oxidation, but the carbonation was lively to the point of distraction. I’ve had (and greatly enjoyed) the standard Nihilist, so this was a surprise. That said, it was my wife’s favorite of the bunch but she’s not much of a Bourbon drinker, so that’s understandable.
“#4 is Blue Mountain?” Right again. There was a sense of balance in Concealed Darkness, contributed by the right amount of roasty flavor and astringency from the malts, that was unmistakeable. Not only was it my favorite beer of the evening, it’s already on my short list for favorite beers of 2015.
So it was down to two–2014 BCBS and 2013 Schlafly BBA Imperial Stout. I thought I had them pegged: there were similarities, but the rich feel and lack of distinction in the flavors of #3 screamed “BCBS” to me, while #2 was much more boozy than I remember Schlafly being, but it had admittedly been some time since I’d tried it.
At the last minute I forgot the advice of my junior high/high school German teacher Mr. Henry, who always told us “Your first guess is your best guess; your second guess is your worst guess; your third guess is better than your second, but worse than your first.” I knew the answer, doubted myself anyway, and went with my second guess.
“Is #2 BCBS and #3 the Schlafly?” Nope. Of course not; I had it the first time. The Bourbony goodness was the 2013 Schlafly Imperial Stout, while #3 was the 2014 BCBS. Throwing out the Sly Fox for any possible issues that might have been going on in the bottle, the BCBS came up last with me.
While my palate may be contrarian when it comes to BCBS, at least I’m not an asshole. At least in this regard. There are so many other ways I’m an asshole, but let me feel good eliminating this one, ok?
At least I know now that my impressions of BCBS aren’t just “because ABI” as I’d wondered/feared. To me, it genuinely lacks for something. The two times I’d tried BCBS previously were a pair of 2012 bottles I got when it first came to Virginia. I drank one soon after release and another near the end of 2013. Both times I found the beer ‘milkshakey’–a term I use analogous to ‘jammy’ in wine: feeling rich to the point of caricature, lacking the necessary acidity and tannin (or in the case of beer, alcoholic heat, hop bitterness, malt acidity, or all three) to give it balance. Drinking that second, slightly older BCBS, I found myself dropping a shot of High West Son of Bourye in the glass to give it some bite. The Blue Mountain had that balance, which is something I personally look for, but maybe you don’t care about balance. That’s fair enough; we all like different things, and have tastes that veer in different directions. I’m just trying to convey where I’m coming from.
The best comparison I found was between the BCBS and the Schlafly. The Schlafly threw me by being the booziest of the bunch–seriously, this thing smelled eerily similar to that glass I’d dropped the High West into once upon a time, and on the palate there were moments where it seemed like the beer was playing second fiddle to the booze. But what Schlafly Imperial Stout lacked in subtlety, it made up for with its distinctive flavors that interplayed as the beer warmed. For me, with the Bourbon set to ‘stun’ rather than ‘obliterate’ this would’ve been the beer of the night. As it is, it’s still impressive as all hell, and I highly recommend it.
The BCBS came across boozy on the nose like Schlafly. However, where you could pick out the Bourbon, malt, and chocolatey tones in the Schlafly, the BCBS was just…there. At first I wrote “more coalesced (integrated?)” but that’s not what I was experiencing. What it was was a “mish-mash,” the note I took a few minutes later. Make no mistake, BCBS is a tasty beer, but for me (again, my personal perspective) the problem is that with its massive, lush feel and “there-and-then-gone” finish, it’s a Guy Fieri-style trip to FlavorTown, rather than a full and developed experience.
This actually jives with the one BCBS variant I’ve tried, which was also the one version that’s legit knocked me on my ass–the 2012 BCBS Cherry Rye that I got to sample during a bottle share with friends early in 2014. Rye malt, Rye Whiskey barrel, tart Michigan cherries…everything in Cherry Rye works to give it the backbone I feel BCBS so desperately needs. I’m going to try to hunt down some Coffee BCBS, as I imagine it too would have more of the acidity/bite I’m looking for.
What did I learn, if anything?
Between multi-million dollar ads and the slew of brewery buyouts to come, it’s going to become more important to separate “I don’t like that brewery’s beers” from “I don’t like who owns that brewery.” Even if you’re the kind of dumbassed idealist who feels that every purchase is a small political statement, especially when it comes to things you’re passionate about…
…/looks in mirror…
…it’s important to create the distinction and keep it in mind, because no one loves a zealot, and it’s nigh impossible to make an ownership-based argument without sounding like a snob. In the end, decisions about what you like and what’s “good” to you are about your palate, not ‘the business’. I can like Goose Island’s beers or anyone else’s, but choose not to buy them because their corporate ownership wants to put my favorite breweries (and yours, by the way) out of business. I can not be a fan of Goose Island or anyone else and still acknowledge the ability and quality found in their beers, despite the conventional wisdom that says ‘macro’ ownership immediately and necessarily means cutting corners in the brewing process, or shoddy quality. I‘ve written about this at length in the recent past, actually.
There’s a lot of talk about ABI’s “war” on “craft beer,” as if AB or InBev ever wasn’t–but that’s a conversation for another day. The response to Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad has contained a lot of exactly what the beer industry doesn’t need–judgement of the buying decisions, palates, and motivations of others. Think whatever you want about a company’s business practices, but when it comes to the beer itself:
-Trust your palate, and yours alone.
-Having made any judgements about beers you do/don’t like, never stop challenging yourself. No one is infallible, and our palates change dramatically over the course of our lives.
-Learn to ‘not like’ things without ‘hating’ them. Please.
-Don’t be the asshole in the room.
Tasting notes in a couple days. Until next time.