2016 in review: Goose Island LDN party and Bourbon County launch

As 2016 draws to a close, it seems appropriate to shine a light on some of the events that unfolded across the past year, but have gone overlooked. This isn’t a critique of how memorable each event was in isolation, but rather an observation of how vast the beer scene in the city has become. By March 2016, the number of new breweries in London increased by 24%, introducing 36 new businesses, and this figure has continued to increase.

Given that the amount of breweries in London currently hovers around 80, there’s no scarcity of occasions to attend, whether it’s attending a launch or accessing a range of beers from a much lauded brewery from outside the city - from Bristol, Manchester or even further afield. It’s been a tremendous year for beer events. Simply put, there just isn’t enough time to divulge them all.

A number of events this year have stood out, but have remained buried in my photo library and fuzzy memory. As the year prepares to take its final bow (or final blow, given the general tendency of 2016 up to this point), it’s fitting to revive the brief snapshots of these eclipsed highlights.

Goose Island: Block Party LDN (Saturday, 24 September 2016)

Goose Island Brewery hails from Chicago and is a macro, part of the AB InBev family, that took great pains to resonate with London drinkers in 2016. The first of these occasions was the inaugural London leg of their annual block party, a sold-out event held in RED Market, Shoreditch. Thousands of revellers were tempted by the promise of street food vendors, a live set from English band Everything Everything and a beer selection that included their much sought after Bourbon County Stout and vintage ales. Brewers were flown over from the windy city and John Hall, founder and CEO of Goose Island, welcomed press to sample the rare beers in advance of the crowds; this included their Sofie and Juliette, the former a saison and the latter a wild ale, and the elusive 2014 Bourbon County in addition to a variation on the original, the Bourbon County Templeton Rye.

The enigma surrounding the Bourbon County drew in a curious crowd of bloggers, journalists and industry friends. The turn-out was due to the rare opportunity afforded to sample the barrel-aged beer in the UK. Stories of people queuing for hours to get their hands on a bottle in the USA drifted across the pond and stirred up sufficient intrigue. 

The rich flavour of the Bourbon County is undeniable. The 2014 batch was redolent of smoked leather, both in aroma and taste, but in a highly pleasant way. With a viscous mouthfeel, this complex barrel-aged stout is loaded with flavours of tobacco, molasses, dark chocolate and espresso. Complex, deep and boozy, it felt worthy of an occasion. Boasting an ABV of 13.8%, it certainly merited one.

The event was a high point of the summer, attracting a group of people who were curious to take a peek behind the Goose Island veil. Given the strength of some of the beers on offer, memories of the event slip into a haze of oompah bands entertaining drinkers, the wafting smells of barbecue and even a moment of clarity where John Hall happily obliged to down an oyster or two in our presence.

This was not only an introduction for many to the Bourbon County, but also a preview of what was to come. 2016 was a momentous year for Goose Island generating a buzz around London, indicative of their intent to start pushing for a market share in the UK.

Goose Island:  Bourbon County Stout launch preview (Thursday, 24 November 2016)

Juxtaposed to the extensive LDN Block Party, Goose Island invited a small group of writers and journalists to sample 2016’s Bourbon County before it was launched for the first time in the UK. Due to be stocked in a single bottle shop in North West London and limited to 100 bottles on the day, the PR machine was in full-throttle. Based on photographs and videos taken on the launch day, Friday the 25 November, it appeared to work - there was a cluster of eager individuals who dedicated their morning to queue for a bottle, which retailed for £20.

On the evening, Joshua Smith, UK Brand Ambassador, and Tim Faith, Innovation Brewer, introduced the Bourbon County, explaining the origins of the concept and tasting notes. Before the 2016 batch was circulated, Tim explained the primary difference between this and last year’s variation: the 2016 has been pasteurised and is the first edition to undergo this treatment. This was due to several bottlings of the 2015 batch that were infected with lactobacillus-related bacteria and recalled; pasteurisation removes any chance of this happening again.

The 2016 batch was tasted alongside the 2015 edition for comparison – while the variations between the two were subtle, they were distinguishable. The 2015 Bourbon County was aged longer in the barrels and the depth of certain nuances and the mouthfeel varied accordingly; the 2016 had a fresher more herbal quality and lacked some of the potent richness of the former, which made it lighter on the palate. Hints of vanilla were more pronounced in the newer edition as well, imparting a mellow sweetness to the beer.

Again, the budget of a macro brewery allowed for decadent touches on the night, including free-flowing taps, KERB vendor Annie Mae's scooping out generous servings of macaroni and cheese and artisan donuts from St John’s Bakery. Goose Island representatives took questions then mingled with the crowd throughout the evening. Attendees were also treated to the new UK release of the Goose Island Winter Ale, but this was overshadowed with the palpable anticipation to tap into the Bourbon County.

Two different events where no expense was spared. It was therefore not terribly surprising when Goose Island announced plans for the opening of their first permanent European site in Balham, a Vintage Ale House. Whether or not Goose Island will continue to invest in these types of glitzy affairs has yet to be seen now that they have a UK base. But it's set a benchmark for UK breweries to perhaps emulate, so we might be seeing similar affairs from our homegrown (and still independent) talents in 2017.

I was kindly invited to both Goose Island events by their PR agency, Shine.