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Standouts at Goose Island's Stout Fest 2010

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Goose Island's Vanilla Bourbon County Stout

Goose Island's Vanilla Bourbon County Stout

philip montoro

Saturday was of course Public Drunkenness and Green Novelty Hat Day in our fair city, but I spent the afternoon indoors at Goose Island's Clybourn Avenue brewpub, going toe-to-toe with more than a dozen Chicago-area brewers at Stout Fest 2010. The brewers won—I'm amazed I can read my notes, honestly—but it's easy to be a good sport about it because before I waved the white flag I managed to try 15 different stouts, some of them among the best I've tasted.

Goose Island's own offerings numbered about a dozen and included no fewer than five varieties of their world-class Bourbon County Stout. The vanilla edition—which I tried first, remembering the unearthly vanilla-bean Dark Lord from Dark Lord Day 2008—was boozy and flat as oil, with notes of milk caramel, pralines, and roasted hazelnut. Next came a revamped version of the Crop to Cup espresso stout Rind Grind: originally brewed with Meyer lemon peel, it'd been juiced up with additions of whole honey tangerines, green coriander, chamomile, and Citra hops. The herbs and hops gave it a cool, almost spearminty flavor, woven into the taste of lemon espresso. Among the more audacious stouts I sampled, it was by far the most successful.

Goose Island's only miss was a dry stout called Irish Rose. Brewed with cherries and mint, it sounded promising, but I couldn't pick out cherries or mint—it actually tasted slightly soapy, which I'm sure was just a trick of my palate but which nonetheless spoiled the beer for me. I moved on to GI's Blueberry Bourbon County Stout, which if not my favorite beer of the day was definitely the most pleasant surprise. Served at maybe 55 degrees, it smelled like a pie that had just finished cooling, and the flavor had an explosively juicy berry note up front, fat and ripe like a Beaujolais. That faded into burnt brown sugar, bourbon, and oaky vanilla, and the finish was cleanly tart and fruity again, unusual for a stout. This could've been the power of suggestion, but I swear I picked up a whisper of pastry crust underneath it all. Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall has been aging beers in barrels since 1992, three years before the company started bottling, and it shows.

According to brewing manager Tom Korder, Goose Island has no plans to bottle the Blueberry Bourbon County—it'd be extremely expensive for them to brew it commercially, since to balance the fruit against the dense, powerful base stout they have to use enough blueberries to sink a battleship. But the Vanilla Bourbon County will be bottled toward the end of the year, and the coffee version—which blends its flavors and aromas so perfectly it reminds you why people started putting whiskey in coffee in the first place—should hit shelves later this month. Also scheduled for late 2010 is a limited Bourbon County Stout aged in barrels that Korder says previously held 26-year-old Pappy Van Winkle. That's a whiskey that goes for hundreds of dollars a bottle at 23 years old, so these are special barrels indeed.

Already in bottles is Goose Island's Night Stalker, a silky imperial stout that's massively dosed with Simcoe and Mt. Hood hops. Just breathing over a glass of this stuff is better than drinking most beers. The interplay of spicy, skunky hops and the sweetly roasty base beer works to fend off the palate fatigue that can make it hard to finish a glass of some amped-up stouts—I'm pretty sure I could keep drinking this stuff until I required medical attention.

None of the other brewers had nearly as many stouts on offer as Goose Island, but they brought their best and still managed to compete. Revolution Brewing was pouring its Black Power Oatmeal Stout, which had a plush, sexy head and a kick of molasses in the nose. Bright, peppery hops (Magnum and Celeia, among others) rode atop its mellow oatmeal flavors—I usually think of oatmeal stout as comfort beer, but this one's lively and assertive.

Half Acre's imperial stout, Big Hugs, was intensely roasty and bitter, with an almost fruity nose and a red-wine spiciness up front. The bourbon-barreled cherry imperial stout from the Roundhouse in Aurora had a pleasantly sinus-clearing aroma, full of sharp, sour fruit, and the flavor followed suit—tart, tannic, and roasty. Captain Fantasy, a beer from the Lombard Rock Bottom that I confess I picked just on account of its name (hello, Ween!), turned out to be hopped up like Night Stalker, though it was a bit thinner and less intense.

My last beer of the day was Abduction, by a brand-new local brewer called Pipeworks. They aren't in business yet, strictly speaking—they're looking at a couple locations in Garfield Park, and hope to be selling beer in six to nine months—but they clearly already know what they're doing. Abduction has a long, complex profile that covers an amazing range of the flavors that a stout can have: hoppy and sweet up front, toasty and molasses-rich in the finish, with a tangle of notes in between that reminded me of honey roasted peanuts, burnt toffee, and Kansas City barbecue. From there, after a stop at Binny's to buy as many 22-ounce bottles of Night Stalker as I could carry, it was on to Subterranean for the godly Harvey Milk. Thus was completed a full day of Stuff Mostly Dudes Like.   

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