One of the biggest deals for craft beer enthusiasts is the annual spring release of Founders Brewing Company’s “highly acclaimed” KBS, or Kentucky Breakfast Stout. The outrageous 11.2% bourbon barrel-aged beer attracts fans from all over the country to Founders’ home base of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they line up for hours on end for short pours of the inky, robust brew. The beer’s release has become so popular that Founders issues tickets for the event, and this year, rather than pour it just at the brewery’s taproom, they decided to celebrate with a week-long party throughout greater Grand Rapids.
I wanted to see firsthand what all the hoopla was about, so last week I tagged along with Founders’ co-owners Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens as they crisscrossed their way through Grand Rapids to several KBS Week events. Over the course of four days and at fifteen different bars, kegs of KBS were dispensed to thirsty crowds eager to get a small pour of the jet-black liquid.
I quickly discovered that KBS is an over-the-top beer shored up with oodles of cold-brewed coffee, dark roasted malts, and earthy cocoa nibs. But unlike most stouts, it also boasts a hoppy bitterness that approaches that of an imperial IPA. In order to meld these seemingly at-odds flavors, the beer takes a year-long slumber in bourbon barrels stored in old gypsum mines that are carved below the streets of Grand Rapids. These caves maintain a crisp, cool temperature year-round, which allows the barrels to coax KBS into something utterly delicious: On the nose, KBS hits strong with coffee and faint whiffs of vanilla and bourbon; on the palate, though, it’s flat-out imposing with wave after wave of velvety chocolate, rich molasses, and dense vanilla oak. It’s as close to a masterpiece as beer can come and easily one of the most exquisite beers I’ve ever tasted.
Between stops one day last week, Engbers explained to me how the idea for KBS came about. “I was tending bar one night at our original tap room,” he said, “and I took a sip of porter and then popped a few chocolate-covered espresso beans in my mouth.” It tasted so awesome that he ran to head brewer Jeremy Kosmicki and said, “We’ve got to make this into a beer!” But rather than brewing a puffed-up version of the porter, Engbers wanted to go balls-to-the-wall with a big, extreme beer.
He explained that at one time, nearly a decade ago, the company was close to bankruptcy. “We figured we were going out of business anyway, so we decided to start making beers for us, ones that we would enjoy ourselves.” Their gamble paid off and Founders is now the third-best brewery in the world according to the highly influential website RateBeer.com, thanks in no small part to beers like KBS. “With everything we do, we want to push the liquid envelope,” said Engbers. “Now our motto is, ‘Brewed for Us.’”
Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout is released once a year, on draft and in four-packs for about $20. Many bars and bottle shops will be holding special KBS events the week of March 29 and April 7. For events near you, check foundersbrewing.com.
Justin Kennedy is a New York City-based food writer and all-around good drinker. Mike Donk is a craft beer-obsessed photographer who shoots unique breweries and the passionate people behind them. See more of his work at brewbokeh.com.