Though aging beer in barrels previously used for wine, whiskey or other spirits has become the beer industry’s favorite parlor trick du jour, the idea was originally popularized in the mid-‘90s by Goose Island when the Chicago-based brewery first introduced its Bourbon County Brand Stout. And yet despite two decades with barrel-aging as one of the brewery’s calling cards, it’s only this year that Goose Island really appears to be turning its barrel-aging program loose.
The push began in February when the brewery announced “The Cooper Project” – its first series of barrel-aged beers outside of the Bourbon County brand. The Cooper Project No. 1 – a Scotch ale aged in bourbon barrels for four months – arrived in March, with two other releases, a blond doppelbock and a porter, scheduled to be released later in the year. That would be a relatively aggressive barrel-aged schedule on its own, but then, yesterday, Goose Island released Brasserie Blanc – a golden ale with grape juice aged for up to 14 months in Muscat barrels. Blanc is the first in a two-part Brasserie series also set to be released this year. And keep in mind, these releases are on top of the annual Bourbon County Stout series (which usually includes four beers of its own) as well as occasional tap room-only releases in Chicago.
- The 25 Most Important American Craft Beers Ever Brewed
- When Craft Brewers Sell Out, Who Gets Hurt?
- Where to Drink Craft Beer in Portland, Oregon
Clearly, Goose Island has gone a bit barrel crazy, a fact that isn’t surprising seeing as they are the godfather of all the barrel-aged madness. But why this year? “We began dabbling in sours and other wood avenues (beyond BCBS) well over ten years ago, so it isn’t quite all of the sudden,” Goose Island Brewmaster Jared Jankoski told Food & Wine. This decade long research and development phase allowed the entire brewing team to explore their curiosity and mess with every factor imaginable: “barrels of different sorts, wild yeast and bacteria, fruit and other adjuncts, different base beers and blending.” Then, even if these experiments yielded tasty results, a new problem often presented itself: scaling up production for a wider release. “If it seems like we are releasing a lot of barrel-aged beers lately, perhaps it is simply a coming of age or maturing of our program,” Jankoski continued. “That organic evolution of it is something I am personally proud of.”
Thanks to the brand’s previous success with barrel-aging, Goose Island is also lucky enough to have plenty of space to play with. A few years back, the brewery opened a new 130,000-square-foot warehouse specifically to be filled with barrels, casks and foudres (wooden vats larger than typical barrels). “We have more than 100 projects aging at any given time,” explained Jankoski. Still, the warehouse that Bourbon County Stout built will always have plenty of room designated for Goose Island’s original barrel-aged darling. “We are trying to grow everything and BCBS is a legacy that we cherish and are extremely proud of,” the brewmaster said. “Our hope is to put resources towards our barrel-aging program as it grows so that all the beers we are truly proud of can grow to their full potential.”
Okay, but isn’t all of this barrel aging just getting a little out of control? “[We’re] just having fun,” Jankoski countered, “and we look at it as exploration and opportunity to learn… We are somewhat used to having a very large barrel-aging program; it’s normal to us. Sometimes people walk into the barrel warehouse and they are pretty taken aback by the space. To us, it’s just what we do. The number of projects we have going just evolved over time and keeps evolving, so it’s become part of our DNA. We have plenty of new projects that we are rolling into as time and space allow as well. It’s a lot to manage, but like all brewing it’s a labor of love.”