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Founders Brewing Company worked beer geeks into a good froth last fall when it announced Canadian Breakfast Stout as the second installment in its 750-mL Backstage series. The maple syrup Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout, which had previously only seen limited draft availability, is currently ranked as the third most popular beer on BeerAdvocate.com. Its October release was greeted with reports of multiple block-long lines outside bottle shops, people paying north of $100 a bottle on eBay, and other general foolishness.
That caliber of irrational reaction isn't uncommon anymore for some of craft beer's most sought-after releases, but was it justified? How does what's in that coveted CBS bottle compare with the near-hysteria surrounding it?
I sat down with David Flaherty, operations manager at Hearth restaurant and Terroir wine bars, and our better halves to see. To round things out, we added a Breakfast Stout and the past two years of Kentucky Breakfast Stout (No. 8 on BeerAdvocate's list) into the mix.
Each of Founders' chocolate, coffee and oat-laden imperial stouts are brewed with a different recipe, leading to three unique beers. Dave Engbers, Founders' vice president and director of marketing, describes the origin of Breakfast Stout as a near-religious experience he had while bartending.
A regular offered him a handful of chocolate-covered espresso beans, which he in turn washed down with a Founders porter. The flavor combination stuck and was made into a stout. KBS came a year or two later as a beefed-up imperial stout when Founders began experimenting with bourbon barrel-aging. CBS followed in a similar vein, but instead was aged in bourbon barrels that had most recently been used to age Michigan maple syrup. The brewers had to modify the recipe for CBS to account for the beer's own residual sugars along with the maple left behind in the barrels.
We began our session with Breakfast Stout (8.3% ABV, 60 IBUs), the brewery's double chocolate coffee oatmeal stout, which is brewed with a blend of Sumatra and Kona coffee beans. The first bottle we opened seemed a bit off. (It was not more than a few weeks old when we had it.) There was a green pepper and plastic aroma that we'd never noticed in past bottles.
The second bottle, about two months old, was back in line with the Breakfast Stouts we remembered. It hit with an intense initial scent of fresh ground coffee, followed by dark chocolate as soon as we popped the cap. The deep brown, almost black stout was thick and silky on the tongue. Coffee, roasted grain, and bitter dark chocolate seemed to amplify one another in the flavor, creating a sharp, pronounced bitterness. While certainly not the biggest of the bunch, it seemed to have a more aggressive bitterness and the least residual sweetness to round the edges. The coffee and chocolate went on and on in the finish.
From there we moved to KBS (11.2% ABV, 70 IBUs), which is cave-aged in oak Bourbon barrels for a year before its release. The 2010 version was a decadent affair with inviting aromas of vanilla cream, oak, bourbon and dark fruit. The bourbon character in this thick pour was even more pronounced in the flavor. It's huge at first, seconded by an alcohol bite. The coffee was present, but more nuanced here. It developed a subtle port-like quality that would be perfect for an evening of sipping slowly. The finish was a three-part wave of booze, chocolate, and caramel. (Engbers points out that Founders doesn't really recommend cellaring the Breakfast beers, because their chocolates and milkfats will degrade over time and the coffee notes can dissipate.)
The 2011 KBS wasn't quite as genteel as 2010's, but there's still a lot to love about the rowdier younger sibling. Roast and hops are in first position in the aroma, framed by oak. The flavor was big and bitter in the 2011. The booziness was more pronounced with huge coffee and vanilla currents running throughout. This is an unabashedly Big American Beer.
But all of that was a delicious, high-octane lead-up to the answer to our question at hand: How does the Canadian Breakfast Stout stack up to its expectations? Massive flavors are Founders' stock-in-trade as a brewery, and CBS (10.6% ABV) stretches that boundary. Clean coffee, sweet malt and piney hops intertwined with the aroma's chocolate and maple. The beer poured black and completely opaque. Its mouthfeel was creamy and full, but never heavy. Alcohol? There's plenty of that, but it wasn't out of place or offputting. Sweet but not cloying maple and milk chocolate were matched in the flavor by dark chocolate and hoppy and roasty bitterness. There was nothing small about the sweet or bitter elements in CBS, but it pulls off the precarious balance like a hippo on a tightrope. There was a lot of flavor wound really tightly in that bottle, and it stretched out considerably as it warmed in the glass. I'd love to try it again a year from now—if only I had another bottle.
We found CBS to be staggeringly impressive and one of the best beers we tried last year. It's on par with the best of the cult imperial stouts. Have you tried it? Do you think the beer warrants the general craziness and price-gouging that came with its release?
Disclosure: CBS was provided as a sample for review.