The superlatives used to describe Founders Kentucky Bourbon Stout are many and varied, from “truly great” to “elegant.” It’s a beer that has its own week-long celebration. It’s a beer that is sought after by beer enthusiasts all over the world. It is routinely included in lists of the best beers, well, ever.
It’s a beer that is measured by its year, like a new car or a vintage guitar. A couple of years ago, I was at a beer festival in Louisville, Ky., where KBS was being poured in two-ounce samples, and the line to get a taste cut a swath through the entire event.
So, I counted myself lucky to receive a review sample of the 2017 version from Founders Brewing Co. If you’re reading this, you most likely know what Founders KBS is, but if not, here’s a quick rundown: It’s an imperial breakfast stout brewed with coffee and chocolate – and plenty of both – and then aged for a year in Kentucky bourbon barrels in old mines in Michigan some 85 feet underground.
I had only been able to get random tastes here and there since I learned of the highly sought-after beer. I never had the gumption or the money to go the extra mile to procure a bottle for myself, and therefore had only had samples at a couple of beer events. So, to have an entire bottle to myself was a rare treat. (No, I wasn’t about to share.)
The beer pours like motor oil, if thick, black oil also carried a foamy, tan head. It’s truly a beautiful beer to behold in the glass. Place the glass under the nose, and it’s nearly a sensory overload of chocolate, roast, and a hint of the bourbon that remained in the barrels. It’s quite remarkable, even if the 11.8 percent ABV booziness is apparent before the first sip is taken.
Interestingly, there is a tad more carbonation than I had recalled, but that only keeps the beer from being too syrupy, in my mind – it’s surprisingly easy to drink, given the magnitude of the body. A first taste reveals the big chocolaty flavor that pays off with a creamy mouthfeel. Mixed in are flavors of roasted malt and coffee, plus notes from the bourbon, from traces of vanilla to even butterscotch.
A hint of hop bite at the end of the beer surprises somewhat, but the big, warm finish that spreads through the chest is the nicest surprise of all in that it harkens to the bourbon flavors in the beer. As I make my way through it, the big flavors hold steady, with no palate fatigue forthcoming. The main flavor here is that of dark chocolate, but the malt sweetness is balanced deftly by the coffee notes. It’s just a beautifully orchestrated beer.
It’s no accident this beer is a white whale of sorts, because it truly is that good and in short supply. That said, I taste a lot of beers. So, how much of the legend is subculture hype, how much is orchestrated by the brewery, and how much is simple quality meets scarcity? It’s hard to say. But I will reiterate that I feel fortunate to have gotten a bottle, and if I happen upon some KBS for sale, I’d be more than willing to pony up for it.
I won’t be holding my breath, however.
If you can find it, KBS 2017 was released in 750ml bottles and 12-ounce bottle four-packs.
Kevin Gibson is a Louisville, Ky.-based free-lance writer who writes about everything from food to music to beer to bourbon to professional football. He loves bacon, loathes cucumbers and once interviewed Yoko Ono (pissed her off a little, too). He is author of "Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft" (2014, History Press). He published his first novel, "The Liberation of Crystal Hill" (Bearhead Publishing), in 2011; he also published "Crohn's Disease: A Memoir from the Toilet" in January 2015 and his currently working on two more book projects. He co-hosts a weekly local radio show, and also plays in a couple of bands, the Uncommon Houseflies and the Nick Peay Band. Not surprisingly, he doesn't sleep much. But when he isn't running around town chasing stories or poised at his trusty laptop writing, you can often find him at one of the local breweries and being thankful for the life he lives. That, or he'll be sitting on his couch with his trusty sidekick Darby. Check out his beer blog, 502Brews.com, or his website, KevinGibsonWriter.com, to find out more about his books and why he does what he does. Or feel free to call him names on Twitter: @kgramone.