By: Keegan Cantrell
Founders is a brewery that needs no introduction, but certainly deserves one.
Calling Founders anything other than legends these days is underselling the influence they have had and continue to have on the craft beer industry and art form.
There seems to be a theme in craft beer, that if you want to make it to the top, you must have a shameless love for the craft, and a fearless attitude.
Tame beers don’t garner 100’s across the board and instantly galvanize your brand as a craft beer pioneer either, so the two go hand in hand.
But before I get into the history let’s talk about Founders annual release event that took part just a few weeks ago.
KENTUCKY BREAKFAST STOUT WEEK
For one week a year, one of the most sought after, palette slaying beers emerges from its yearlong oak home and takes its place in the snifters of beer aficionado’s everywhere.
Throughout the week, the tasting room seethes with beer-tourists and locals alike waiting for their opportunity to try the riot generating flagship brew.
But is it hype?
Certainly not. Craft beer fans are a famously contentious group, defending their favorite beers passionately, and crucifying the imposters.
So it should come as no surprise that the beer is appropriately respected across the world, maintaining 100’s and “world-class” on just about every reputable beer rating website you can find.
I can personally say the beer lived up to the hype, having had a few weeks back for the first time on tap. For a beer that comes in at 11.2% the drink-ability was dangerous. Incredible smooth and expertly balanced, the whole experience was refreshingly memorable. The chocolate, espresso, and bourbon/vanilla notes seem to be a perfect triangle of flavor that act as a team rather than their respective flavors, pushing off each other and melding edgeless-ly with the overall body of the beer in a way that most beers of its kind fail to achieve. A balance that seems to alleviate the often-inevitable density that accompanies a beer of that magnitude. I can say there is a reason this beer is considered world class. Not because the flavor is new, but because the beer has been perfected.
Yes KBS week is quite the event. A weeklong celebration of a now legendary beer that was once difficult to sell. A beer that was never an ugly duckling, but rather just misunderstood.
The Kentucky Breakfast Stout is nothing short of a 10 year old album that suddenly goes platinum.
An engaging symphony of chocolate, espresso, bourbon, and malt, aged lovingly in oak barrels for a year underground clocking in at a commanding 11.2% ABV.
Everything you might want in a stout these days, but back in 2003 the public had never heard of a “barrel aged beer” before. These days everyone has a barrel series, but back in the early 2000’s it was still highly experimental and to many a foreign concept.
The idea for the original breakfast stout came to Founders’ founder Dave Engbers one day after a regular customer came into the brewery he was working at at the time, and offered him a bag of chocolate covered espresso beans. While imbibing on a porter during lunch he decided to snack on the chocolate espresso beans. As soon as the flavors collided the idea hit him.
It made sense, why not get bourbon barrels for our breakfast stout? Logically the bourbon notes would resonate nicely with the beer.
So they called up Jack Daniels Distillery.
In the beginning people just didn’t get it, least of all the woman they spoke to at Jack Daniels Distillery where they received their first two barrels for free.
“You want to do what? We normally just throw them away, so sure, just come pick some up.”
Once they had their barrels they immediately filled them up with their flagship breakfast stout waited patiently for the next 6 months.
As soon as they tried the first batch, they knew what they had was good, but it needed something.
What it really needed was a bigger beer. So they tried again, but this time with a Russian Imperial Stout of their own creation. The bigger beer allows for a bigger backbone, and in turn more of the bourbon and vanilla notes to stand out.
This turned out to be the magic recipe and has remained virtually unchanged in nearly 15 years.
When the beer first debuted, it didn’t sell. Distributors just wouldn’t bite. Not because it wasn’t good, but rather being the most expensive beer Founders had ever created, a humble 4 pack of 12oz bottles, rang up at close to $20 which often distributors laughed at.
Things turned around when in 2005 when Mike and Dave brought the beer to the Extreme Beer Festival in Boston where they began drumming up some interest. For the next 8 years the hype built slowly over forums and word of mouth, until the beer had become a bonified legend in the shadows.
Then in 2012 Founders had their moment of victory. While walking by the brewery early in the morning of a Saturday release to check to see who had shown up, Dave Engbers came across a line of over 1000, stretched around the block.
A third of the people who had made the pilgrimage went home empty handed.
Founders decided they didn’t want anyone going home without a smile on their face anymore, so they ramped up production and in 2014 debuted KBS week. A weeklong celebration of the beer and everything Founders.
As KBS has continued to double every year so has the trend of barrel aging. Once an experimental novelty has become a staple in craft beer.
Now people age in everything they can get their hands on, and I like to believe we have pioneers like Founders to thank for that. It’s never the first person to do something that people remember but rather the first that can unite everyone in communal agreement, that what they’re experiencing is truly excellent.