On the first day of April — no joke — the texts started rolling in from beer buddies. One bragged with a posed picture of fresh Kentucky Breakfast Stout next to a couple world-class IPAs. Another came in calling for an immediate decamp to Brooklyn’s Mission Dolores, a beer bar that just tapped a keg of Founders’ famed KBS for its anniversary party. And we did, after a quick stop at a nearby bottle shop to buy our two-KBS-per-customer allotment. Soon, packed against a Medieval Madness pinball machine, using a spare stool for a table, the black bourbon-barrel-aged stout was on our tongues, and we made our annual confirmation that the Michigan-brewed stout is one of the world’s few beers that can live up to the hype.
Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout’s run as one of the craft world’s most prized bottles is impressive for its staying power. Born in 2003, the early days of bourbon-barrel-aged beer, the first batch of KBS filled two Jack Daniel’s whiskey barrels — which are neither bourbon or from Kentucky — with the coffee-infused Breakfast Stout. After the first tasting, Founders was hooked on the experiment. Soon, the recipe was tweaked to what we enjoy today: barrels from all the big Bourbon county producers and an amplified Breakfast Stout recipe that takes the beer above 11 percent alcohol.
The American beer scene has done an incredible job playing catch-up. And in fairness, Goose Island’s excellent Bourbon County Stout predates Founders by roughly a decade. But few beers generate the nationwide fervor of KBS and deliver.
Iconic stouts like Three Floyds Dark Lord, Perennial Barrel-Aged Abraxas, and Surly Darkness draw hundreds and thousands of fans to their breweries for release-day parties, but that’s about the only way to get your hands on a bottle. Founders ships KBS to 37 states for the early-April release and offers a weeklong early-release party in its hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, in March.
Like most strong stouts, KBS takes roughly a year from brew day to bottle and spends most of its time aging in oak. But Founders has one big advantage that likely sets KBS apart: gypsum mines. Running under Grand Rapids and now converted to storage space, Founders rents air-conditioned caves to store 9,000 barrels — also containing Backwoods Bastard and a handful of experiments — that would never fit in the brewery. Yes, it’s odd for barrels of one of the world’s great beers to sit around the corner from pallets of butter sticks and stacks of all-but-forgotten legal documents, but the dark, constant-temperature rooms (about 40 degrees) create consistent aging conditions. Most brewers follow the model of the Kentucky bourbon rackhouses that warm and cool with the wild swings of summer and winter weather. This method, whether intentional or for lack of refrigerated space, produced undoubtedly phenomenal beers. But it’s not how KBS is made, and just maybe, it’s the difference.