Duck season? Wabbit season? Neither—it’s KBS season, the few weeks following Founders Brewing Co.’s annual release of its bourbon barrel-aged, coffee- and chocolate-flavored Kentucky Breakfast Stout. Hunters of beer know that you have to snatch bottles of the limited brew almost as soon as they hit the shelves, but then what? Do you pop them as soon as you get home, or does the strong stout (12.4% ABV this year) need time to mellow?
That’s a question Founders brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki gets all the time. “It’s a personal preference thing,” he says. “Myself, I prefer to drink them as fresh as possible. Those coffee and chocolate flavors will fade a bit over time, and the oakiness will come out a bit more.”
Kosmicki says he tastes aged batches of KBS regularly and recently sampled his oldest bottle ever: an ’07. So how’s a 9-year-old coffee stout taste? “I was definitely nervous about it,” Kosmicki says. “But the coffee was still there. I was super-impressed at the way this beer holds up.”
But “holding up” and “improving” are two very different things, and here at DRAFT, we experiment (read: drink beer) regularly to determine the optimum age for cellared beer. Yesterday, we conducted one such experiment with three vintages of KBS. Here are the results:
KBS 2016 (the fresh batch)
Aroma: Mocha-heavy, like coffee ice cream, with a lactose-like sweetness reminiscent of a latte or dessert. A sugary base of malted milk balls, vanilla and graham crackers supports more sunny notes of dried plum, blueberry and fruity, lightly nutty coffee beans. Everything is very well-knit, and booze is an afterthought.
Flavor: Berry maple syrup drizzled on graham crackers, with some peppery coffee tones up front. Rich, dusty cocoa swirls mid-palate and biting espresso lingers on the sides of the tongue post-sip. The alcohol is certainly warming—you can feel it traveling all the way down your chest—but it’s not hot.
Aroma: The coffee fragrance has fallen away, but alcohol hasn’t—in fact, this smells boozier than the fresh batch, though it’s at least a percentage point lower in ABV. Coffee has, for the most part, evacuated the nose and been replaced with milky chocolate and intense berry/cherry sweetness, giving the impression of a Raisinette.
Flavor: Much sweeter than the fresh batch, although there’s less of that rich vanilla and graham cracker support. Coffee arrives a beat after the swallow alongside chocolate, but is mild. The beer’s myriad flavors all seem to arrive on the tongue at different points; things have become disjointed. The body, too, has lost the silky, fleece-soft quality of fresh KBS, coming across oily and sugar-thick.
Aroma: Oak is the most prominent contributor to the nose, with notes of wood, vanillin, wet whiskey, dusty cocoa and molasses. It’s not as sweet as the 2015, avoiding that vintage’s fruitiness and trending more toward barrel notes. Coffee is far off in the background, fuzzy and indistinct.
Flavor: Tannic and oaky, drying in its woodiness. Chocolate falls off in flavor and coffee is totally ancillary, while semi-harsh whiskey lingers well into the finish. The flavors are more even-keeled and better-blended than the ’15, but the whiskey and oak fatigue the palate after a while.
So should you age your KBS? We think not. Whereas coffee is the name of the game in the fresh batch, berrylike fruitiness personifies the beer after one year, and whiskey-laden oak takes hold after two. These differences could, of course, be the result of batch variation (“The blend is fairly close every year, but there will subtle differences,” Kosmicki says). But what stands out most about the fresh batch is all of its rich mid-palate cushioning—the cocoa, the graham cracker, the vanilla—and the loss of these notes in aged bottles kills the brew’s cohesiveness. The whiskey character and alcohol content, though higher than in previous years, is also better-integrated in the fresh batch.
Of course, in order to drink your bottles fresh, you’ll have to find them first. Happy hunting.