|The KBS Story
by Glen Deluc
Ask any ten serious craft beer fans to name the best stout they've actually had, one that's very
hard to find (but not totally impossible), one that is universally considered "world class", and
one that is perennially on every best beer lists, and at least eleven will say Founder's
Kentucky Stout. At 11.2 percent alcohol by volume, this bourbon barrel aged beauty.
For many, whenever it's released each year it's a beer version of a UFO sighting — somehow
you just missed it. Either the keg just tapped out just after you sat down, or the case the local
beer store had sold out moments before you arrive. Indeed, because of its popularity, KBS
has been both a blessing and a curse for Founders, which built its barrel-aging clout around
the popularity of this single beer. The demand has simply outgrown the limited to begin with
supply, frustrating many who want it. Like anything highly sought-after, there will always be
folks who turn their frustration into criticism, screaming that the beer isn't worth the hype or the
hassle. As a person who's enjoyed it more than a few times let me assure you it is actually
worth the hype and maybe, maybe even worth the $10 I recently paid for an 8 ounce pour.
The supply available that evening sold out in less than 30 minutes by the way.
If you ever wondered how such a phenomenon came to be here is the tale.
One Saturday afternoon, a taproom regular came in with a bag of chocolate covered
espresso beans and gave some to the Founders' brewer who often worked through lunch.
When he washed them down with a sip of porter, a light bulb went off. None of the flavors
overwhelmed each other he thought. The point was that you could still taste the coffee and
th chocolate, but more than anything, you could still taste the beer.
Then in 2003 Founder's called down to Lynchburg, Tenn.and asked the Jack Daniel’s
distillery store for a couple of spent whiskey barrels. They then filled the with two barrels
with a beer from their portfolio, Breakfast Stout, and left for six months.
After sipping the first test batch, everyone at Founders was sold.
They then notched up the recipe by mixing a imperial Russian stout with espresso beans
and chocolate for the first formal batch. They had brilliantly seen that the beer needed
a much bigger backbone to hold up all the bourbon and vanilla notes. Then
they switched to oak bourbon barrels and history was made.
KBS was the most expensive and labor-intensive beer Founders had ever produced and
distributors initially balked at it. Their most common concern was that the retail price point -
$20 a 4 pack- would scare off consumers Their tune changed after Founders took KBS to the
Extreme Beer Festival in Boston in 2005 and wowed everyone. Next, the chatter in social media
for the beer grew so loud that wholesalers were inundated with requests from retail accounts.
Demand for KBS coincided with the overall growth of craft beer in the U.S. This
unprecedented demand for good beer in general had pushed Founders up to being
Michigan’s second largest brewery. The company growth continues and it is on pace
to make roughly 200,000 barrels of beer in 2014.
The KBS batch size has doubled every year since its debut but now has stalled due to space
constraints - Founders ages the beer in a local gypsum mine-turned storage facility. The
cave-aging is a bit of a novelty and also lends KBS a certain marketing cachet.
The brew, which pours midnight brown, is for some not so much a beer as a drinkable
collector’s item; something people hold onto for the “right occasion” or buy simply to
gift or trade. To these folks it's as if the actualconsumption of a hot commodity like KBS is
somehow irresponsible given the lengths necessary to procure a bottle. To most people
however, the beer is made to drink and enjoy, an experience that only serves to further
enhance the legend of Kentucky Breakfast Stout.
Barrel-aging has grown as well, at Founders and elsewhere. Only a handful of
breweries were using barrels when KBS was developed. Now, it seems to be a serious brewery
you have to do it. Founders buys about 3,500 bourbon barrels every year for beers such as
KBS,Backwoods Bastard and certain taproom one-offs.That number makes Founders among
the largest brewery barrel-aging programs in the U.S.,
In years past, beer enthusiasts have crashed Founders web servers with traffic caused by
interest in the release of KBS. Even more, over the years, thousands of people have camped
outside the brewery in frigid temperatures so they can be first to get their share. For
2014 however Founders decided to open up the release so that people coming to
their Grand Rapids, MI brewery for KBS can enjoy all a week of events in
the town that during that time is clearly Beer City USA.
.KBS this year was still released in bottles in the Founders' taproom, through a pre-ticketed
system that lasted through the week. In addition, fifteen Founders-supporting craft-beer-
centric bars and restaurants in the Grand Rapids area each received a keg of KBS
to tap on a day of their choosing throughout this same week.