Fan Fiction for Beer Nerds

The home-brewed spinoffs of one of the world’s most sought-after beers have become collector’s items in their own right.

Every year on Black Friday, Goose Island Beer Co. releases new, limited-edition variants of their Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS) series to long lines across the country. Beers like Bourbon County Vanilla Rye (2014) and Rare Bourbon County Brand Stout (2010 and 2015) have become coveted among collectors, sometimes selling for hundreds of dollars on the secondary market. So beloved are these spinoffs—which combine regular Bourbon County stout with “adjuncts” like coffee, vanilla beans or fruit—that some fans began bootlegging their own. These affectionately trolling releases, whose precisely replicated labels read like beer’s black market fan fiction, have gained an equally ecstatic following.

“I literally took it as a Don Quixote–like challenge to get every single one,” says Christopher Nyren, a Chicago-based strategic advisor for the global education industry. He began collecting legitimate BCBS variants in 2015 before discovering the bootlegs two years ago. For BCBS completists like Nyren, the hunt for these unofficial releases has become an obsession. By his count there are at least 18 bootleg BCBS labels thus far; of those, he’s tracked down 16.

According to Nyren, the first to appear was Double Stuffed Bourbon County in February 2018. It was produced by an anonymous Instagram user named Vicarious Blending, who Nyren calls “the Satoshi Nakamoto of fake BCBS,” citing the pseudonym of the person who is said to have developed Bitcoin. (Not surprisingly, due to the illegalities, many troll whale creators likewise wish to remain unknown.)

Supposedly, Vicarious Blending pumped a legitimate keg of 2017 Bourbon County through a second “conditioning” keg filled with Madagascar vanilla beans and Oreos, before force-carbonating and bottling it with a white wax neck seal. The spoof label is convincing, though “real” BCBS bottles have never had a waxed neck. Most Bourbon County variants today retail for around $30, but a single bottle of Double Stuffed was auctioned off for charity for $120. Vicarious Blending has since disappeared from the internet.

Double Stuffed would set the template for troll whales to come. In early 2019, an anonymous brewer in Cincinnati produced a German Chocolate Cupcake BCBS and a Marshmallow BCBS. Not long after, another homebrewer, who goes by Firehop Brewing, released the candy bar–infused Goose Hunting Butterfingers. Likewise, Reese’s County, created by an amateur outfit by the name of Skeptical Brewing, cropped up earlier this year. Before going dark, Vicarious Blending released the peanut butter–flavored Carver’s Blend, named for George Washington Carver; the label featured the prolific scientist, best known for his work with peanuts, astride a goose.

“Part of the appeal of these is definitely the funny label,” says Nyren. These spoofs, however, are always based on a label that was mothballed in 2014, which, in some ways, marked the end of the brand’s heyday as bottle counts quickly began to increase in number and, in 2015, endured an infection scandal that soured many fans on the brand.

Earlier this year, Brian Pautsch, co-founder of a tech company in the Chicago area, created Coconut County, inspired by his favorite BCBS variant, Proprietor’s 2013, which had been brewed with toasted coconut. Secondary pricing had soared to around $200 a bottle, so when he came across a 2018 BCBS keg up for trade in a Facebook group, he jumped on it. After consulting a professional brewer, he infused the keg with four pounds of toasted coconut, cacao nibs and Vietnamese cinnamon, and adorned the bottles with a baby blue Proprietor’s-inspired label. He kept five bottles for himself, donating the rest to raise funds for furloughed brewery employees. Pautsch and a friend are planning to make a vanilla-cinnamon version with BCBS sixtels.

Perhaps the most famous of the BCBS troll whales was created by an anonymous individual in Arizona. Banana County is inspired by the 2010 Rare Bourbon County. Produced in 2019, the forest green label of the original remains, topped by the addition of yellow wax. It went viral when Geriz Ramirez, general manager of Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing, procured a bottle (it sells on the secondary market for around $80), posted it to his popular Instagram account @beerwithflavor, and then hosted a banana stout bottle share at the brewery earlier this year.

“For a couple guys, it’s a legit side hustle,” says Nyren. In Chicago, it’s possible to get a BCBS keg for as little as $250. After investing in ingredients and labels, you could theoretically produce your own BCBS spoof for $15 to $20 a bottle and flip each for $60 to $80, though some have sold for hundreds.

At least two legitimate breweries have joined in, too. Iowa’s Pulpit Rock canned Nothing Original, a rocky road–inspired stout, with a design that bears a striking resemblance to BCBS, while Florida’s 3 Sons blended a sixtel of BCBS with Neapolitan astronaut ice cream to create Bourbon County Brand Scoop. The latter was available at a private, members-only event two years ago, but a few bottles were still smuggled into the wild, eventually fetching upward of $1,000.

For its part, Goose Island is low-key about the appropriation, even posting fire emojis on troll whale Instagram posts and bidding $80 on the initial bottle of Double Stuffed. Since 2018 they’ve also hosted Making of a Variant events at their barrel warehouse where, for a $120 ticket, teams of two can blend fresh BCBS kegs with their own ingredients to make bespoke Bourbon Counties.

“While the saying goes, ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,’” says Bourbon County brand manager Mike Smith, who also runs the event, “I want people to understand it’s not Bourbon County Stout anymore after it’s been adapted at home.” Bourbon County or not, it’s certain that the fan fiction flattery will continue.

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