Those of you keeping track will have noticed that I missed a couple of weeks in the Sunday Stout Soliloquy series. Perhaps you thought it was over because the series was only supposed to run until the end of winter, and the optimist in me would like to think that winter is behind us. In fact I did consider pulling the plug on it, but there are a few more imperial stouts in my cellar and part of the motivation of this series was to thin out the beer squirreled away in my basement closet. So stout lovers of the world rejoice, because today I’m going to review one of the most highly sought after beers on the continent, Founders KBS. We’ll see if it can live up to the hype.
Among beers that are distributed throughout Ohio, KBS has to be one of the hardest to track down. Its distribution is limited to one day each spring, and demand outstrips supply to such an extent that its shelf life is ranges from 15 minutes (if advertised on social media) to a couple of hours, that is if it even makes it to the shelf. Good luck getting your hands on some if you wait until after work to stop by your local beer store. In Columbus KBS day occurred this past Tuesday (March 31, 2015), which would lead you to believe that through some combination of connections, persistence and luck that I scored a bottle or two this year, but that would be mistaken. The bottle I’m drinking tonight is a 2014 vintage, generously given to me by my friend Andrew Griffis. It comes from a four pack purchased by Andrew’s mother Janet, who was willing to wait in line for 20 minutes at a beer store in East Lansing, MI on a Tuesday morning last March. A big thanks to Janet and Andrew for making this post possible. (Editors Note: I have mixed feelings about that kind of world because rare beers would be even harder to come by for those of us who can’t depend on our mothers to chase down white whales.)
- Brewery: Founders (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Style: Imperial Stout
- ABV: 11.2%
- IBUs: 70
Many people think that the base beer for KBS is Founders Breakfast Stout, but that is not quite true. The initial batches, made back in 2003, were made by aging Breakfast Stout for six months in used Jack Daniels barrels, but the original recipe needed some tweaking. Quoting from an interview by Garret Ellison of Michigan Live with Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens of Founders:
“They switched up the recipe and used an imperial Russian stout with espresso beans and chocolate for the first formal batch. “It needed a much bigger backbone to hold up all the bourbon and vanilla notes,” said Engbers. For the first formal batch, they switched to oak bourbon barrels bought from what Stevens termed a “wandering barrel salesman.” That’s today’s recipe in a nutshell.”
Once the barrels are filled they are put to rest in an old gypsum mine near Grand Rapids for a full year.
The appearance is much like any other imperial stout—dark and opaque with a small mocha colored head that quickly dies off to a scrim. The nose is a beguiling bouquet of bourbon, vanilla, and chocolate in that order. I’ve never developed a taste for straight bourbon, but the notes that come through on the nose of a good bourbon barrel aged stout are simply delectable. The taste is a bit of a rollercoaster ride. Initially your mouth is greeted with smooth decadent chocolate, vanilla and oak flavors join the party mid-palate before giving way to a bourbon-forward finish. The combination of chocolate from the malts and vanilla and oak from the barrel always trigger the taste sensation of molasses in my brain, and KBS is no exception. The silky smooth mouthfeel envelops your tongue in a velvety embrace that words cannot adequately describe. The malty base hides the alcohol so well that the 11.2% abv only becomes apparent later when the ethanol permeates your blood brain barrier and you start to make poor decisions.
The absence of coffee aroma or flavor is notable. I read a facebook post by my friend and fellow beer blogger, Tom Aguero of Queen City Drinks, advising people not to cellar their KBS unless they want the coffee flavors to fade. I can attest that in this 1 year old bottle much of the coffee flavor has dissipated. On the plus side the bourbon flavors have likely mellowed which allows the flavors of the base beer to hold up better. I’m not fortunate enough to do the fresh vs aged comparison here, but I’d be interested to hear how much coffee came through in the fresh bottles of KBS that some of you must have enjoyed earlier this week. It’s food for thought for those of you who can’t bring yourself to open a bottle of the precious KBS you just bought.
What’s the verdict? As one of the iconic examples of a bourbon-barrel aged stout KBS does not disappoint. Chocolate, vanilla, oak and bourbon meld harmoniously to make a treat that is worth savoring. There’s no question that beers like KBS and Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout have inspired many breweries to jump into the barrel aged stout game. The question is whether the followers have caught up to the trailblazers, and my answer to that question is a resounding yes. Hearkening back to earlier reviews of barrel aged imperial stouts like Thirsty Dog’s Barrel Aged Siberian Night and Laughing Dog’s The Dogfather I would be hard pressed to say that one stands above the others. Maybe the bourbon is a bit more integrated in the KBS, but then again it did age for a year in my basement, whereas the others were consumed soon after purchasing. Of all the bourbon barrel aged stouts I’ve tried this year I’d have to choose Epic’s Big Bad Baptist as my favorite. That’s a good thing for those of us who have day jobs and can’t send our mothers out to follow the distribution truck.
Rating scale: 10 = perfection, 9 = excellent, one of the top beers in the world, 8 = very good, one of the top beers in its style category, 7 = good, a solid beer I’m happy to be drinking, 6 = average, not bad but not something I’m likely to buy again, 5 = below average, 3-4 = poor, should be avoided, 1-2 drainpour.
If you want to read other posts in the Sunday Stout Soliloquy series check out one or more of the links below: