Special Stouts - Are They Worth The Price?
by Richard Maline

One good thing about winter is that it's stout season!. For some, that may mean
simply shifting gears from session IPAs to darker brews. For others, it entails a
crowded calendar of special events celebrating the release of sticky, sludgy, boozy
barrel-aged beers. These coveted creations cost double, and sometimes even 10
times the amount of an ordinary stout.

It's the time of the annual release of Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout ($25 for a
750-milliliter bottle) and a few weeks later comes Goose Island’s annual Prop Day,
when the brewery releases special bottles from the famous Bourbon County Brand
series at their brewery in Chicago. Tickets are awarded via a lottery drawing, and
winners are chosen a month in advance. The winners have the privilege of paying
$30 for a ticket, which then grants them ability to purchase a bundle of beers for $70.
The nationwide release of Bourbon County stouts comes the day after Thanksgiving.
A few weeks later, on Dec. 15, Toppling Goliath superfans can cash in their $100
tickets to take home a 12-ounce bottle of Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout (KBBS).

Boozy, barrel-aged stouts are now a major calling card and revenue driver for
breweries across the country. What makes these beers so expensive is, partly, the
painstaking process in which they are made. It’s more than that, though. The success
of sticker-shock stouts is a result of branding, the economics of scarcity
Are these beers worth their steep price tags? As with stouts themselves, the answer
is hardly clear.

Their origins date back to the mid-1990s, when Goose Island debuted its Bourbon
County Brand Stout (BCBS). In 2003, Founders followed suit with its Kentucky
Breakfast Stout (KBS), a bourbon-barrel-aged chocolate coffee stout. FiftyFifty
Brewing launched its Eclipse series in 2007, and Toppling Goliath debuted KBBS in
2012.

Barrel-aged beers like Bourbon County are significantly more expensive to create
than “normal” stouts or other, non-barrel-aged beers. They often require at least
double the amount of raw material, such as grains and hops, and so “costs do add
up,” Bill Savage, Goose Island lead brewer, barrel program, says. Goose Island’s
Honker’s Ale uses about 550 pounds of malt. A typical imperial stout requires
approximately 800 pounds, and BCBS necessitates more than 1,000 pounds of malt.
Casks are also costly, especially in recent years, Savage says. By his estimation,
three or four years ago, “the bourbon boom really started taking off, and aged spirit
casks were in short supply,” he says.Today, bourbon barrels sell “in the ballpark of
$150 per cask,” according to Savage, and the Bourbon County lineup requires
“several thousand” of them.  

Aging is also a pricey operation, requiring time, space, and personnel. At Goose
Island, Savage leads a team of five — soon to be six — barrel program brewers who
work year-round on barrel-aged beers like Bourbon County, which ages for at least
eight months.

While Founders’ KBS and CBS are no longer what they were as far as taste, hype,
and trade value according to some critics Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand
Stouts are still some of the most anticipated releases of the year.This is especially
notable given the heated politics surrounding beer ownership. Since 2011, Goose
Island has been wholly owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, arguably the craft beer
world’s most rage-inducing supervillain. Additionally, Goose Island recalled several
Bourbon County Brand Stouts in 2016.

Founders is no stranger to controversy, either. The Grand Rapids, Mich.-based
brewery sold a minority stake of its business to Spanish brewer Mahou-San Miguel in
2014, after which many turned against the brewery on principle. Others feel that
Founders is selling more KBS and CBS than in previous years, thus making it less
desirable.

There’s also the FOMO element of drinking something that the average person isn’t
going to get their hands on.  Is it better than everything else? Probably. Is it five, six,
seven, or eight times better from a value perspective? Not likely, but you’re going to
have something few others have and that’s half of the excitement of it.

Pricing a stout so high most beer drinkers won’t buy it is an example of breweries
taking advantage of the market,They’re doing it because people are going to show
up, and they’re going to buy it. In other words, brewers price these stouts far above
other beers because they are expensive to produce, but also because the market
can sustain it. If no one were willing to spend $100 on one beer, Toppling Goliath
would stop releasing beers that cost that much.
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