Sunday, November 29, 2009

Stout Month Review: Goose Island Bourbon County Stout (2008 vintage)

Recently I got into a discussion with some friends on a sticky point in anthropology and international rights that, it seems to me, can be broadened into a philosophical issue. It started with the famous Trekkian question of the prime directive. Let's say you encounter a small, entirely isolated culture on an island out in in the Pacific somewhere. How far, and under what conditions, do you interfere with or enculturate them?

The general agreement seemed to be that if the group needed some kind of medical assistance (they suffer from some kind of illness, say) then one should offer it or trade it to them; beyond that things got more iffy. It's quite questionable whether a "modern" culture, lifestyle, way of thinking etc. is any better (or, indeed, any worse) than that of the islanders. The itch to keep other cultures as they are, as unchanging objects - this is questionable. But then, the full-on enculturation of the islanders (e.g. taking them back to port) - this too is questionable. But what if they ask to be taken in? They could very well do so - and yet, could they make such a request based on any secure information?

During the course of the discussion it seemed to me that we were missing one possible avenue of approach, which I then tried to describe by analogy. I said something like the following:

"In my life, I'll probably never own a Lamborghini. But let us say that one day I gain an opportunity to have one, and all I need to do is to make the choice affirmatively. The difficulty is this: I have no idea what it would be like to drive a Lamborghini. It's very unlike anything I have previously dealt with. I shall never truly know what I'm in for in owning one until I sit in the seat and push the pedal - in other words, I shall never know what it's like to own a Lambo until I've already made the decision to own one. So it looks as if I have to choose somewhat blindly. Nevertheless, in the meantime there's still something I can do - I can ask people who already own Lamborghinis to describe the experience, as best they can, in my terms, and I can listen carefully to their descriptions of the joys and the costs (I can also read reviews, etc.). I shall still be missing something, no doubt, but this allows me much more of an informed decision.

"Now, the islanders are in a similar situation to me and my Lamborghini. They can choose to be enculturated or not. But the condition for adequately knowing what that would be like and evaluating it appropriately, is that they already be enculturated. All the same, though, can't they talk to us and ask us what it's like? Can't we describe to them, in more or less imperfect ways, what it means to live in a so-called 'modern' world? A full education is out of the question here, but I think one might be able to communicate some sense of this life."

My roommate Claudia pointed out to me - quite rightly - that I assume that communication would be possible in the first place, when it may not be the case. Indeed I do, and I have no easy answer (philosopically) to what it would mean to establish such communication (e.g., whether that would already be a kind of interference). So, Claudia wins this round. Nevertheless, the Lamborghini buying example and the situation of the islanders seems to me to hint at a special kind of philosophical phenomenon. In both cases the matter chosen or denied is a black hole of sorts - if I stay away then I shall never see (understand) it, and if I move in for a closer study then I shall be pulled in without hope of reversing the decision. I will either be stuck with it or forever kept in ignorance.

Every choice - I put this forward as a hypothesis - presupposes some knowledge of the directions that may be taken. Call this knowledge the epistemic condition for the choice. What is distinctive about these two cases is that although the epistemic condition is given in some sense - I will know what I have chosen when I have chosen it - it is also, to some degree or another, unavailable, away, absent. Let us dub these situations abconditional choices, for lack of a better term. These are not simply choices made without adequate knowledge, but choices where the only way to know for sure is to choose a certain way.

The cliche'd example of such an abconditional choice, of course, is the game show host presenting three numbered doors. Most of these choices seem to me much more quotidian, however, and much closer to home. When we buy a gift (or really, any consumer product), or go on a date with someone, we choose abconditionally; just so, when we drive the back roads rather than the interstate, or learn the guitar rather than the piano. Many of the decisions we make in life are one-way streets that we cannot escape if we enter, and cannot know what lies on the other end; we can perhaps only rely on the word of those who have already gone in.

Such is the situation I find myself in trying to review the Bourbon County Stout. How the fuck do I describe this thing? Nothing I've ever had comes close, not even the Payton Bourbon Barrel Stout, and I'm willing to bet the same goes for you, dear reader. I'll do the best that I can, but in the end the only way you'll know for sure what this sucker is is to try it for your own self.

Everything about this beer says it's going to be huge. The story helpfully written on the bottle (which is rather nicely designed, by the way, as is standard for Goose Island) indicates they made this by jamming malt into their tuns to the point of overflowing and then aging the results in an oak bourbon barrel for 100 days. How heavy is the result? Well, it's 13% alcohol. Thirteen percent. I've had distilled liquors weaker than that. So basically I'm expecting this thing to knock my damn fool head off (and, just to give you a preview, it doesn't disappoint).

I expect something special when I popped the top - a Michael Bay-style explosion, maybe. But there's nothing, just a very quiet hiss (there's not much carbonation in something like this, as you can imagine). I expect the smell to start pervading the room immediately, the way the Payton Stout did. But it doesn't - sure, it's got a striking odor when I take a whiff from the bottle, but it doesn't stink up the whole area. I give it a pour - it's absolutely pitch black and quite thick, albeit not as much as the Payton. Head? Ha, you must be joking. This is thirteen percent, vato, nothing's escaping from this shit. There's a little bit of copper foam haplessly floating around, but that's all: looking for a glorious stouty head is a lost cause here. The smell, again, is very similar to the Payton, but a lot more subdued - it's mainly sweet vanilla, with a few bourbon notes. It's hot, though. No hiding the alcohol when the brew's this big.

At this point I'm - well, not exactly disappointed, but certainly not bowled over. I paid six bucks for this bottle, versus (on average) two-fitty for the Payton - which spent three times as much time in the barrel. Honestly I'm feeling a little bit gypped. And then I take my first sip.

Holy fucking shit wow. Wow. What in the. I can't even. This is. I. Guh.

This beer is absolutely, completely overwhelming. Goose Island put a blurb on the side of the bottle, claiming it has "more flavor than your average case of beer." Astonishingly, they aren't lying. Do you remember the lack of dimensionality I complained about in the Payton review? That dimensionality is here, in spades. Drinking that was like sitting inside a giant subwoofer. Drinking this is like sitting inside a giant orchestra. Fucking hell, you know what? That's putting it way too elegantly. Drinking this is like being socked in the head by The Thing - it's just an unbelievably strong, potent, mouth-coating taste.

Okay, backing up a little, let's see if I can be more precise about this. Up front, there's slickness and a little bit of bitterness. Then, moving back, it e-x-p-l-o-d-e-s. The main taste is oak, bourbon, and roasted malts, but there's so much else here I don't even know where to begin. Licorice. Espresso. Rye. Prunes. Cacao? (Look, I got nothing folks, they should've sent a poet.) After it hits the back, the oaky notes begin to assert themselves more forcefully and take over, leaving an aftertaste so heavy it feels like you're breathing alcohol for seconds afterwards.

The mouthfeel is, of course, extremely thick and almost clammy. But in a good way. Like the Payton, this shit will coat your mouth like nothing else - don't even think of pairing it with anything, the BCS'll just run right over it and then take another pass to make sure it's dead. Oddly, though, I find this monster easier to drink than the Payton as well. I'd never call it a sessioner, but the sheer mass of flavors beg to be examined and inspected with another sip. Really, this isn't a beer, it's a fucking Bruckner symphony.

One final note for the description: this shit is STRONG. I know I said 13%, but it's definitely the harder side of 13%. I am now barely halfway down the bottle (a feat which took more than a half-hour), and I am well beyond Buzzed and entering the land of Shitfaced. Based on the sheer alcoholic force of this brew, thirteen sounds like a woeful underestimation. I don't mind, of course, but don't plan on doing much after you down one of these.

The grade? A+. Easily. I'm completely sold - there's simply nothing else to be done here. When I wasn't paying attention, Goose Island - they of the ubiquitous shitty wheat ale - went and crafted a masterpiece. Actually, this is something more than a masterpiece: it's a Concorde, it's a milestone in brewing history. I am left with nothing to compare it to.

My local Binny's has had four packs of the 2008 vintage on hand since last year, and they're selling them for about $21. That's well over five bucks for a bottle. Is it worth it? My opinion lies somewhere between "Yes" and "That's a Fucking Bargain," but I know that's probably not going to help you much - you who is reading this, you who is trying to decide whether to drink this stuff. I wish there was something I could say that would help, but I hit a wall a few paragraphs ago. In the end, you'll either try it or you won't, and you'll make that decision having no idea what you're getting into.

Grade: A+
Summary: It's a beer in the same way that Heracles was a man. It is, and yet... it just isn't.

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