There were tours of the new barrel warehouse.
We shuffled, the hundreds of us, backs hunched against the cold November wind, and that was when the wind wasn't in our faces. We waited, the hundreds of us, for our small portion of the greater share, priced by the market far higher than reason would seem to dictate. We grumbled, the hundreds of us, that there had to be a better way.
Dispatches from a breadline in the dystopian future of Trump’s America? No! Try the first half of Goose Island’s Proprietor’s Day event on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. And despite a rough start, it was actually a pretty good party — especially for a ticket no one had to pay for.
Goose Island, you may recall, has had a rough 2016. In January, two variants of the 2015 Bourbon County lineup (Coffee and Barleywine) were found to be developing off-flavors. In July, certain bottling dates of the basic Bourbon County Brand Stout as well as the 2015 Proprietor’s blend were going down the same path. (Proprietor’s is the Chicago-market-only variant that, aside from last year’s Rare variant, is typically the most sought-after Bourbon County beer.)
The brewery issued refunds for the bad bottles, and the big question was: How would Goose Island respond in 2016 to buy back some consumer confidence?
In October, Goose Island announced it would hold the first ever Proprietor’s Day celebration on the Sunday before Black Friday, which is when Bourbon County beers are released nationwide. Tickets would be free, but distributed via online lottery. Lucky attendees would be able to buy one bottle of 2016 Proprietor’s a week early, plus one bottle of a to-be-determined vintage Bourbon County bottle and enjoy a total of five free pours of beer at the party.
A good friend of mine is blessed with a prodigious amount of beer luck, so of course he won a spot at the party. And since each winner is allowed to bring one guest, he bestowed that honor on me. We were pretty excited. Chicago Tribune beer writer Josh Noel fanned our flames, having tasted all four 2016 Bourbon County releases and named Prop his favorite.
That excitement wasn’t overly diminished as the first reviews of 2016 Prop came in from this year’s Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beers, but my friend and I would be fools if we weren’t a little worried. Another friend was among the many critics, writing, “Something is off on this one.” FOBAB wasn’t a great debut for this beer.
The wind was unforgiving during a long wait to get in.
And frankly, the queue to purchase bottles at the Prop Day event didn’t help much either. The day started at the Fulton Street taproom, and the line wound almost around the block on which the taproom sits — close to a third of a mile. It was cold and windy, and the early afternoon sun wasn’t high enough or warm enough to make a difference. It took my friend and I well over two hours to make it through a line where we were guaranteed the right to two bottles of beer. What the holdup was, we’ll never know.
Maybe it was hemming and hawing as people found out that the TBA vintage bottle was 2015 Rare, which must have been exciting for some folks even though Goose Island was charging one-third over the 2015 retail price for the bottle. A guaranteed $20 bottle of 2016 Prop loses some of its luster when you’re walking away with two 16.9 ounce bottles for a grand total of $100.
However, once we got our bottles and took the free (and blessedly warm) shuttle bus to the Goose Island Barrel Warehouse, things improved markedly. All the organization that seemed missing from the bottle release was in glorious relief at the drinking end of the party. Our lanyards were gorgeous — thick, foil-embossed, letterpressed cardstock — and as we got our pour of 2016 Prop, a hole punched in the card marked our transit. Another punch for our pour of 2016 Bourbon County Brand Stout, and so on for the three additional pours.
Bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup samples were on hand.
There was music on the speakers, decent merchandise, a barbecue food truck outside the tent, and lots of heaters. Prop 2016 features a maple flavor delivered by aging the beer in barrels used first for bourbon and then for maple syrup; the farm that produces that syrup was there selling bottles and pouring tiny samples. A Logan Square confectioner served s’mores of torched housemade marshmallows, graham cracker, and a dark chocolate ganache made with 2016 Prop.
S'mores made with torched housemade marshmallows, graham cracker, and a dark chocolate ganache made with 2016 Proprietor's were a hit.
Back behind the Porta-Potty area (seriously), Goose Island offered a rotating series of “secret pours” in a scene that was part fight club audience, part onrush of hungry zombies from The Walking Dead. We managed to secure pours of 2014 Prop, which was holding up exceptionally well, still full of cinnamon.
And what about this year’s Proprietor’s, with maple, chipotle peppers and cacao nibs? It was good, certainly far from any lament from FOBAB. Enough but not too much of the chipotles, and not overly sweet like 2015’s maple/toasted pecan/guajillo pepper release. The 13 percent alcohol was well-hidden.
When half of the party is taken up by a slow-moving and chilly line, you can’t say it’s a flawless event. But the barrel warehouse is beautiful, and both 2016 Bourbon County beers were excellent. I can’t say if fortune will fancy me in 2017, but I’ll predict that Goose Island will want one more shot at Proprietor’s Day to really nail it.