11. Boulevard Imperial Stout
City: Kansas City, MO
Key ingredient: A blend of barrel-aged beers
Perfect for: Dry-rubbed St. Louis spare ribs from Bogart’s Smokehouse, superior to any of the vaunted KC joints.
The verdict: On one hand, one might call Boulevard’s offering archetypal of the beers on the table, but further inspection begins to open it up and bring unique qualities to the forefront. There’s a grainy toastiness here that we didn’t pick up in many of the other beers, along with some spicy hops. The barrel character is derived from the blending of several beers; some of the base imperial stout and some thoroughly aged in whiskey barrels. There’s booze flavor here, but it’s able to avoid being hot or unrefined; it’s the enjoyable, fruity, sherry-like tones that come with careful mixing and proper aging. The barrel-masters here clearly have a strong grasp on their business.
10. Deschutes The Abyss
City: Bend, OR
Key ingredient: blackstrap molasses, licorice, cherry bark
Perfect for: Contemplative sipping in a study filled with maps of the world and bear skin rugs.
The verdict: Geez, what isn’t in The Abyss? Its uniqueness doesn’t end with the ingredient additions: It’s also partially aged in a combination of bourbon, pinot noir and neutral oak barrels. That sounds a little similar to the earlier description of Humboldt’s Black Xantus, but clearly the multiple barrel elements are working in much better conjunction here. All of the many flavor components pop up one after another as a parade: Here’s some caramelized molasses richness, here’s twist of black licorice, there’s some vanilla. Smooth, complex and subtle, it’s a beer that begs introspection.
9. Straight to Ale Bourbon Barrel Laika
City: Huntsville, AL
Key ingredient: Have I said “bourbon barrels” in this space yet?
Perfect for: Chocolate-covered cherries
The verdict: Compared to the cabernet-barrel version of the same beer, the bourbon-aged variant of Straight to Ale’s Laika comes across bigger and richer. This beer simply takes to barrels well, and a lot of the stout’s own unique qualities are able to poke through the barrel character: Dark chocolate, vanilla and especially dark fruit flavors of cherry and raspberry. Familiar whiskey flavors follow behind, but one almost gets the feeling that the base beer may be the real star of the show.
8. Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
City: Chicago, IL
Key ingredient: Hmmm, so many choices…let’s go with “bourbon”
Perfect for: For when the bar is plumb out of bourbon but you still want to taste the inside of a barrel
The verdict: We were curious how Bourbon County Stout would come off when directly compared to so many other barrel-aged stouts, but yep: It’s still like getting hit by a 31-gallon barrel, pushed down a flight of stairs. In terms of pure whiskey flavor, it’s probably the most aggressive thing on the entire list—this is for the true whiskey-lovers in the audience. Subsequently, it’s massively sweet and quite tart as well, and the initial swallow hits you over the head with huge oak character, which fades into long-lasting caramel and vanilla, somewhat obscuring what is probably an awesome Russian imperial stout underneath it. There’s nothing subtle about this beer in its base state (before the coffee, vanilla, etc variants), and it probably would really benefit from a little age, but for fairness sake all the beers in this tasting have been made in the last year. Ultimately, BCBS is big, intimidating and will be favored by those who are seeking intensity of flavors more than balance.
7. Evil Twin Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Biscotti Break
City: Kobenhvn, Denmark
Secret ingredient: Danish whimsy
Perfect for: Maple bacon donuts in Brooklyn
The verdict: Definitely on the sweet side, this barrel-aged Biscotti Break variant falls comfortably into the dessert beer category but pulls it off very successfully. Vanilla is a huge note here, and creamy, milk sugar-like sweetness: It reminds one of pastry sprinkled with powdered sugar. Bourbon is there, but it’s able to pull more of the browned, maillard reaction-induced richness out of those barrels than most. It’s like an impeccably made custard or creme brulee, chased with a shot of your favorite bourbon. In its overall makeup, it’s actually got more than a thing or two in common with the Founders KBS.
6. New Holland Dragon’s Milk
City: Holland, MI
Key ingredient: I don’t want to alarm you, but bourbon barrels factor in prominently.
Perfect for: Hoarding from the corner liquor store before a snowpocalypse.
The verdict: The fact that Dragon’s Milk is available all year round almost certainly hurts its esteem and appreciation on some level. That’s just how we tend to operate as beer geeks: It’s always easier to appreciate and hype something that’s more difficult to get. But despite being easier to acquire, the classic Michigan barrel-aged stout performed very well here, even against so much competition. Tasters noted no lack of bourbon flavor but also found appreciation for the stout underneath, which is thick and creamy, redolent of vanilla and fudge, all in good proportion. It might be the best barrel-aged beer that you can buy at a gas station.
5. 4 Hands Vol. 1
City: St. Louis, MO
Key ingredient: Coffee, cacao nibs and 16 months of barrel-aging
Perfect for: Impressing beer geek friends who think they’ve had every great barrel-aged stout.
The verdict: If you have the patience to wait 16 months on something aging in a barrel, good things tend to happen. In this case: Great things. Notes from our tasters are full of praise, but interestingly cite different aspects of the beer as favorites: “Nice coffee, very smooth” from one. “Great chocolate, adult chocolate milk” from another. “Fruity, boozy but not intrusive” from one more. The truth of its flavor lies right in the middle of all the descriptions: There’s very tasty chocolate and coffee character, working on top of whiskey-soaked raisin/prune. Sophisticated and all-around well conceived and executed.
4. 4 Hands Madagascar
City: St. Louis, MO
Key ingredient: Vanilla bean insanity
Perfect for: Mixing into an ice cream base on a Food Network cooking challenge show
The verdict: Okay, remember when we called the last one “sophisticated”? This is not sophisticated. Madagascar, rather, is hedonistic wish-fulfillment of the highest order. It’s like waking up in the middle of the night to a bludgeoning with a brick-sized chunk of vanilla beans wrapped in a towel, except somehow delicious. The aroma, suffice to say, is incredible—essence of vanilla. That essence has the dual effect of creating an incredibly sweet, rich beer while also amplifying all the other flavors—the chocolate pops out at you. The caramel and additional vanillins of the bourbon barrel sing in harmony. It’s a little syrupy and cloying—you probably wouldn’t want a full glass of the stuff—but consumed in moderation it’s an achievement in flavor science. It’s easily the most crazily decadent beer in the tasting, but not one taster found it to be “too much.” Rather, everyone found themselves drawn back for more.
3. Lift Bridge Barrel-Aged Silhouette Imperial Stout
City: Stillwater, Minnesota
Key ingredient: Some sort of American whiskey made of at least 51% corn was here.
Perfect for: Showing beer geeks that world-class barrel-aged stouts can come from anywhere.
The verdict: “Biggest surprise of the tasting” probably goes to Lift Bridge, which we acquired after reading about it online. What strikes you here is sophistication and balance—don’t get us wrong, there’s tons of whiskey barrel character, but it stops just short of dominance—as one taster wrote, “booze doesn’t overpower but makes itself felt.” From another score sheet: “Wonderful balance of malt and barrel, nose and taste match well. Best overall presentation.” In fact, many tasters became convinced of a curious comparison: What the Lift Bridge reminded us of more than anything was Bourbon County Stout in its flavor profile—not as assertive and whiskey dominated, but more thoughtful and perhaps more satisfying as a result. Either way, this small brewery in a Minnesota town of less than 20,000 residents is doing something very right.
2. Epic Big Bad Baptist
City: Salt Lake City, UT/Denver, CO
Key ingredient: An ever-changing lineup of coffees
Perfect for: Convincing Utah of craft beer’s virtues
The verdict: The thing about Epic’s Big Bad Baptist is that every batch is its own little mystery. Regularly produced beers rarely have this much variation, but Big Bad Baptist does, waffling from 10-13% ABV with no real rhyme or reason. Likewise, the source and varietal style of the coffees used in its production change from batch to batch, overtly impacting its flavor profile. But regardless of all that, it’s probably safe to say this: Big Bad Baptist is delicious beer in just about any format. This is simply a skillfull synthesis of the brewer’s art, mixing spicy coffee notes in with dry cacao and mild, oaky vanillans. The barrel is incorporated perfectly as a supporting player and not the star of the show, making it difficult to pick out exactly where the beer ends and the barrel flavor begins. There are no rough edges, just a beautifully authentic tapestry of flavors.
1. Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout
City: Grand Rapids, MI
Key ingredient: IT’S BOURBON, DAMNIT, ALRIGHT?
Perfect for: Inspiring a heist to swipe the world KBS supply and hold it for ransom
The verdict:Looking at the lineup, we knew KBS was an early favorite, but thought there might be quite a few that could potentially beat it—this was not the case, after tasting. The volume of flavor is tremendous, but it’s the surprising balance that keeps you coming back. It features hugely caramelized, vanilla bourbon flavors but its most impressive achievement is that the beer underneath manages to be just as memorable and assertive, jam-packed with mouth-watering dark chocolate goodness. Every single taster used the word “balanced” somewhere in their notes, which isn’t really what we expected from something that tastes like the beer equivalent of bourbon chocolate ice cream. But tasting the KBS next to all these other superlative beers, it becomes all the more obvious that the hype is real. People follow beer trucks to get this stuff for a reason.