While it is true that beer aged in wooden barrels has been around for centuries, the modern practice of aging beer in a whiskey barrel was first tried in the early 1990s, with the initial experiments that would become Goose Island Brewing’s “Bourbon County Brand Stout.”
Since then, scores of craft brewers, both large and small, have taken to aging different brews in barrels that were formerly used for whiskey, specifically: bourbon or rye casks.
Though Goose Island still sees a huge demand for their Black Friday release of BCBS, there are others who have made their annual barrel-aged beer releases into gigantic events that see hordes of beer hunters driving around town, snatching up as many of these beers as they can grab, as soon as the retail stores open in the morning.
Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS) has quickly become one of these enormously popular, highly coveted barrel-aged brews. Though this year was the second year it was available in the North Dakota market, demand was still strong and once again we had early morning customers waiting for the doors to open so they could get their limit and drive along to their next stop to grab more.
Though wildly popular now, the early years for KBS were a very tough sell. With a retail price of $22-$25 for a 4 pack of twelve ounce bottles and little to no press, it wasn’t until they entered the beer into the 2015 Extreme Beer Festival in Boston that word began to spread via the internet and demand spiked almost immediately. Now, the nationwide release of KBS is preceded by KBS Week in Michigan, where thousands wait hours outside the brewery and taprooms everywhere hold ceremonial tappings of this big but balanced beer that is loaded with chocolate, espresso, and barrel flavors like smoke, vanilla, and caramel.
It has become such a driving force for Founders and the demand for space required for barrel aging has grown so much that they recently completed a sizable expansion of their barrel aging facility.
You should still be able to find KBS in four packs and perhaps a random bomber bottle here and there, depending on the retailer. KBS is either already on tap or will be on tap soon at restaurants and bars that are known for incredible beer selections, so saddle on up and try a snifter of what many consider one of the best balanced whiskey barrel-aged beers available.
Founders has also expanded their barrel-aging program to include more seasonal releases of new barrel aged brews they hope will see the same success and notoriety that KBS has enjoyed.
One of those beers, Founders Frootwood, was released to our local market back in January of this year and is grabbing some attention from both fans of slightly tart brews as well as people like myself: fans of old fashioned whiskey cocktails. This beer, according to Founders, starts out as a light and crisp cherry ale but is drastically augmented when it is aged in barrels that previously held bourbon and then maple syrup.
My first impression of this bold new brew is a beer cocktail version of the classic Manhattan. The order of flavors to hit the palate is whiskey first, tart cherry in the middle, and touches of maple sugary sweetness finish by barely coating the tongue which helps the flavor linger on without dominating the cherry ale base and the whiskey influence. The way in which the maple syrup keeps coming back at just the right time to bring balance between the whiskey and the tart cherry is quite enjoyable and kept me coming back for more until the glass was gone. This one might even appeal to fans of lambics or other tart fruit or slightly soured beers as much as it does to fans of whiskey-enhanced brews.
Founders Frootwood is still available at several of the major retailers in the local market.
I’d like to bring up one more unique and interesting take on a barrel-aged beer that comes from Boulevard Brewing in the form of their Scotch on Scotch “barrel” aged beer. This is an oddball for sure, given that not a whole lot of brewers age a scotch ale and I don’t know of any others that age it quite like this.
Following primary fermentation, Boulevard introduces oak chips from a used Scotch whiskey barrel which helps impart a whole lot of oaky characteristics into this heavily malted beer. Complex and earthy with lots of notes of plum, red grapes, figs, toffee, and spice, the pour I had out of a 12oz bottle was at times overwhelmed with huge amounts of oak that was mostly raw wood-chip like but at times came across as smokey. The fruit and earth flavors were challenged at times by the amount of oak, but it almost became a game to me to try to find those flavors again after the oak took over.
Fans of smoke, oak, and scotch ales should consider at least tasting this one to discover how unique it is. Look for it at your favorite off sale or anywhere with a great selection of tap beers.
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