Goose Island’s new Cooper Project barrel-aged Scotch ale, which will be released mid-March, is layered, nuanced and affable at 8.7 percent alcohol. (Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
Strange as it may sound, the best thing about Goose Island’s forthcoming Scotch ale aged in bourbon barrels is that it tastes like beer.
It doesn’t taste like licking the inside of a bourbon barrel. It doesn’t taste like a liquid chocolate bar. It doesn’t require an hour, three other people and a designated driver to get through a bottle.
It’s a beer: layered, nuanced and affable at 8.7 percent alcohol, but short of an occasion worth sharing on social media. It’s just a fine, approachable beer that happens to have a bit more complexity after spending four months in a bourbon barrel.
You know what isn’t so approachable? Many beers aged in bourbon barrels.
Cacao nibs! Chili peppers! Vanilla beans! More cacao nibs! How high can we crank the alcohol? How deeply soaked can it be with oaky bourbon flavor? It’s a rite of passage in American craft brewing.
Goose Island is partly to blame, of course; its Bourbon County series pioneered sludgy, boozy, barrel-aged stouts.
Which is why its new Cooper Project series is such a welcome relief.
Which was the idea.
"We’re using the bourbon barrel as a raw material, and building a beer with the bourbon barrel in mind — not using the bourbon barrel as the star of the show," said Mike Siegel, Goose Island’s manager of brewing research and development.
In recent years, new oak and wine barrels have been the vessels for much of the beer industry’s most interesting experimentation. Russian River, The Bruery and, yes, Goose Island, have all been on that forefront. With the exception of the occasional barleywine, bourbon barrel aging has largely — though certainly not exclusively — been left for the most powerful and busiest of stouts.
That’s why Goose Island’s first installment in the Cooper Project, the barrel-aged Scotch ale, which will be released in mid-March, is such a simple revelation. It features a sweet, caramel nose with a touch of raisin tempered by a wisp of oak. It’s clean upfront on the palate, then lands with a whoosh of vanilla, coconut and toffee, and a pleasingly dry finish.
You know, like beer.
Part of the beer’s approachability is rooted in the fact that it is blended: 50 percent aged four months in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels and 50 percent fresh beer.
The two Cooper Project beers to follow in 2017 will also be blends of bourbon barrel-aged and fresh beer: a blond doppelbock in June and a porter in October.
After nearly 25 years of bourbon barrel-aging imperial stout, Siegel said, Goose Island is trying to determine what other styles can stand up to bourbon barrels.
"There have been a lot of misses, quite frankly," he said.
Goose Island’s pockets have grown significantly deeper since being acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev nearly six years ago, and the growth includes a barrel warehouse of more than 130,000 square feet. In addition to ever more Bourbon County Stout, the brewery uses the space for new projects: Hombre Secreto, a Belgian pale ale aged in tequila barrels last year; Brasserie Blanc, an upcoming ale fermented with grape juice and aged in wine casks; Chateau Noir, an imperial stout aged in cabernet barrels that will be released later this year; and a series of beers aged in foudres, the large, round casks that store wine. It is, naturally, called the Foudre Project.
"With a huge barrel warehouse and rapidly growing barrel-aging program, we want to challenge ourselves," Siegel said. "We don’t want to be one-dimensional and only turn it up to 11 with Bourbon County without exploring other opportunities."