The Rapidian

The Bourbon-Barrel Beer Report: beer lovers compare local, regional, national brews

A beer expert and two beer enthusiasts convened to sip and discuss three brews: Founder’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout, New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk and Blue Mountain’s Dark Hollow. See what they thought of the brews here.
The beer bottles in all their glory

The beer bottles in all their glory /Hayley Grzych

The beers we tried:

Founder's Kentucky Breakfast Stout (2014)

Ratebeer overall rating: 100

Seasonal stout flavored with chocolate and coffee and aged in bourbon barrels

New Holland's Dragon's Milk

Ratebeer overall rating: 98

Year-round stout flavored with vanilla and aged in bourbon barrels

Blue Mountain's Dark Hollow (2014)

Ratebeer overall rating: 98

Seasonal imperial stout aged in bourbon-barrels

 

"Michigan Beer Dude" Ben Darcie

"Michigan Beer Dude" Ben Darcie /Courtesy of Ben Darcie

Before an angry mob of Beer City U.S.A. beer enthusiasts descends, one thing must be made clear:

All beer is not created equal.

“Can we pull off a stylistically restrained taste testing of multiple beers?” local beer expert Ben Darcie wonders.

Darcie joined two Rapidian interns, Hayley Grzych and myself, to help us with our reporting assignment. The challenge: to see how local Founder's Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS) stood up to the competition. We all love beer and wanted to bring the much-hyped and much-loved KBS against contenders New Holland's Dragon's Milk and Blue Mountain's Dark Hollow. We knew full well that testing bourbon-barrel aged beers against each other wasn't entirely fair.

Kentucky Breakfast Stout, in addition to being aged in oak bourbon barrels, is brewed with coffee and chocolate. No other beer is brewed to the same specific standards and with the same ingredients of KBS, just as no other beer is brewed to the specific standards and with the same ingredients of Dragon’s Milk. Comparative dissection of such radically different brews becomes too based in personal preference to help someone trying to decide what beer to drink.

We decided to refrain from ranking the beers. Instead, we took samples of each beer and discussed what we liked about each and what we thought could be improved on. We paid special attention to how flavors interacted, to the mouth feel and to where the taste of beer was among the flavors. 

Instead of ranking them first, second and third, we gave each their own title:

 

Founder’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout – Most dynamic barrel-aged stout

New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk – Perfect introduction to barrel-aged stouts

Blue Mountain’s Dark Hollow – Bold, in-your-face barrel-aged stout

 

What we tasted

The Local: Kentucky Breakfast Stout: This seasonal stout, brewed in downtown Grand Rapids at Founders Brewing Company, is flavored with chocolate and coffee and aged in oak bourbon barrels.

When tasted cold, the chocolate overwhelms the coffee and bourbon on the palate. That isn’t such a bad thing.

“When you put coffee in a chocolate cake the chocolate flavor is really deepened. I feel like that’s what [Founder’s] did with this,” says Grzych. “You get a really rich chocolate flavor.”

As the beer begins to warm, the coffee notes become more prominent and the bourbon flavor becomes more balanced with the other flavors. All of us agree that the coffee adds spiciness.

Darcie says that the combination of flavors is “almost cluttered.”

“They designed the beer so all of these flavors would roll into each other,” he says. “Dark malt flavors roll into chocolate which roll into coffee which roll into the barrel. I think it’s very purposeful, because the way it translates to your palate makes you search through to find particular flavors because they’re all similar.”

Darcie also notes that for all of KBS’ flavors, the taste of beer is stunted.

“When tasting I always ask, ‘Where’s the beer?’ That’s the most important thing for me,” Darcie says. “I enjoy complementary flavors that work with the beer rather than overpower it. In this the big chocolate presence overpowers the beer because the barrel presence and that chocolate are distracting. But that’s just me. Maybe that ‘Where’s the beer?’ sentiment is what they’re going for and is actually a pro rather than con.”

The warm beer’s thick and syrupy body seems to lend itself perfectly to winter.

“Maybe it should be released in November,” says Grzych. “I could see myself in mittens with a mug full of KBS.”

We all agree that Kentucky Breakfast Stout isn’t our favorite brew of all time. We also agree that KBS’ intermingling flavor dynamics make it one of a kind.

“When you say, ‘I want to have a beer,’ you don’t just grab KBS,” says Grzych. “I don’t think I could drink a whole one to myself. It’s a beer that you take and share with friends because it’s something special.”

 

The Regional: Dragon’s Milk: This year-round stout, brewed in Holland at New Holland Brewing Company, is flavored with vanilla and aged in oak barrels.

This high-gravity brew doesn't blow our palates away like KBS or Dark Hollow, although we still enjoy it.

“I feel like [Dragon’s Milk] is kind of monotone,” says Darcie. “It doesn’t have much depth. I do like the barrel presence though. It’s very tight and it adds a little barrel sweetness to it. I definitely feel like it’s a tighter aging than the other two, but...it starts to go somewhere and stops.”

Darcie describes a “prune or raisin” taste, and Darcie and I both greatly enjoy the interaction of the vanilla sweetness with the barrel taste. Grzych notes the presence of the alcohol taste.

“[The alcohol] isn’t quite as present as in Dark Hollow but it’s still more so than KBS,” she says. “Dragon’s Milk tastes the most like beer to me.”

Of the three, Dragon’s Milk is the most easily accessible. It’s more easily paired with meals than the other tested stouts because it isn’t overwhelming on the palate. It’s also available all year long, so getting your hands on a bottle is relatively easy. Although it isn’t something we would store in our basements until we could share it with friends, we would recommend having a bottle or two in the fridge.

“It’s much lighter and approachable than the other two,” says Darcie. “If I was going to ease someone into KBS or Dark Hollow I’d tell them to first try Dragon’s Milk.”

 

The Out-of-Towner: Dark Hollow: This seasonal imperial stout, brewed in Virginia, is aged in oak bourbon barrels.

None of us had tried anything from Blue Mountain Brewery before the test. We were impressed.

“This isn’t the sweet, rich chocolate taste of KBS. It’s earthier,” says Grzych.

Immediately noticeable is a sharpness in the barrel presence that isn’t evident in the KBS.

“When you’re thinking about the two separately, in KBS the chocolate helps mellow everything,” says Darcie. “They might have an equal body barrel presence but in KBS the chocolate smoothes it out. It has a nice roast on the bottom that isn’t in KBS. There’s no chocolate or coffee in this but it almost has a better coffee presence than KBS because the flavor isn’t layered under all the other flavors.”

As the beer warms and the palate adjusts to the flavors, the intensity of the barrel presence mellows, although it's still very evident. Where KBS has chocolate and coffee sweetness and Dragon’s Milk has vanilla sweetness, Dark Hollow has no added flavors. However, the bourbon adds a pleasant sweetness that I enjoy more than the sweet flavors of the other two.

Darcie likes the barrel presence in Dark Hollow more than in KBS but wishes the alcohol content in Dark Hollow was less than 10%. 

“This is all beer,” he said. “It’s all malt, it’s all yeast, it’s all hops and it’s all barrel. That barrel presence isn’t getting in the way of the taste of the beer like it does in KBS.”

Dark Hollow is much more dense than Dragon’s Milk. This is a beer for sharing. The boldness of the barrel-aged taste is enjoyable, but if someone hasn’t tried many types of stout that characteristic might be a con. For regular partakers of stouts, we recommend this beer as a bit of heaven.

 

When it's all said and done…

Each of these beers are great in their own ways and should be experienced. But beer, in the end, is based on personal preference.

“I love Heineken and PBR. I’ll go to The Meanwhile and drink Black Label because I want to,” laughs Darcie. “Sometimes I don’t want to drink a craft IPA with 95 IBUs when I just want to have a beer. Stereotyped absolutes about beer are hurting us. My message is love all of it or none of it and I’ve tried to break down those stereotypes. All beer is so beautiful.”

Grzych says that she notices a rising level of pretentiousness within the local beer community. Newer to learning about craft beers, Grzych and I find this attitude intimidating and stifling.

“I know people who are snobby about beer and it’s not fun to be around people like that,” Grzych says. “If it’s good beer, why not drink it?”

The conclusion of our tasting?  KBS lives up to the hype-but maybe not for the reasons people think.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the best beer in the world, or even in the United States,” says Darcie. “I think Breakfast Stout is better and one of the best beers Founder’s makes. But it’s impossible to find something in the same sphere of uniqueness to KBS. People are just buzzing for the wrong reasons. It’s an illustrious name that people are seeking out without knowing why. They get a four pack and drink all of them over a week. It’s something special to be shared. Maybe the best thing about it is that it generates so much attention and hype and gets people talking.”

“Most of the time when I pick up beer it’s because someone I know has recommended it,” says Grzych. “Grand Rapids has so much beer to try and trying different beers is what makes beer exciting.”

Beer on, Beer City.

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