BS: Imperial Stout, 60 IBU’s, 8.3% abv, Grand Rapids, Michigan, $4 (12 oz)
KBS: bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stout, 70 IBU’s, 11.2% abv, Grand Rapids, Michigan, $6 - $8 (12 oz)
As winter gently sets in, every opening of the fridge reminds me that I have a small stockpile of beer for which the weather is becoming most appropriate. They are all dark and heavy, and most of them have been aged in whisk(e)y casks. A few of their non-oak-aged counterparts are in the mix, which will make for good comparisons.
The phenomenon of oak aging beer primarily started in the American craft brewing scene with the use bourbon barrels in the early to mid 90’s. After a slow start followed by a decade or so of steady growth, the popularity (and production) of barrel aged beers has really taken off in recent years. And while beer can be found slumbering in casks that formerly held almost anything, from wine to rum to calvados to Grand Marnier, the majority of aging is still done in whisk(e)y casks.
Of course there is more to it than simply putting any beer in a random cask – I’ve definitely tasted a few barrel aged beers that fell short of the mark. Beer style, former cask contents, number of times the cask has been used, and how long the beer will be aged are all important factors. There is definitely an art to the process.
I’m going to start off with one of the early success stories of bourbon barrel aged beer – Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. I also have the non-aged Founders Breakfast Stout to taste, but it appears that these are two different beers - the KBS is not simply Breakfast Stout which has been barrel aged.
The Breakfast Stout is described as a “double chocolate coffee oatmeal stout”. The KBS may have changed recently, as the current website description is “an imperial stout brewed with a massive amount of coffee and chocolates, then cave-aged in oak bourbon barrels for an entire year”, but a previous description found online calls it a “strong stout brewed with a hint of coffee and vanilla then aged in oak bourbon barrels”
appearance: black and thick
nose: full, pungent and sweet at the same time, chocolate milk and gentle espresso.
palate: the mouth-feel is rich and thick, but not cumbersome. good complexity with nicely evolving flavors. the coffee is obvious but not overdone and well balanced by the dense malty flavors. interesting interplay of bitterness from the hops, coffee and chocolate. the enduring finish fades off very slowly.
appearance: blacker and more viscous looking when pouring
nose: intriguing, chocolate and vanilla, but it has a unique quality that I can’t quite put my finger on.
palate: extremely dense and rich, the Breakfast Stout almost seems watery in comparison. the flavors explode in a massive blast and continue on in a sustained attack. syrupy chocolate, vanilla, oak, gentle spice. the flavors evolve and mingle playfully through the long, smooth finish.
As I’ve been writing and drinking slowly the beer has warmed up, and it seems more comfortable closer to room temp than fridge temp.
Each of these is actually a great beer in its own right. It feels like an “apples to oranges” comparison - the KBS does things that the BS is simply not capable of, but that doesn’t really take anything away from the greatness of the Breakfast Stout. With the BS you get the roasty, toasty nature as its dominant feature, whereas the KBS is defined by a thick sweetness that is only kept in check by a chorus of elements that are able to act as a counterbalance.