Sunday, November 29, 2009

Stout Month Review: Founders Breakfast Stout

Generally when one uses terms like "coffee" and "chocolate" in booze reviews, one says them in a kind of analogous way. I certainly don't mean that I think there's actually chocolate in the brew, nor even that it even tastes like it does - I simply go searching for some adequate word, some useful description to get at what scents and flavors I encounter in the beer, and happen upon the closest other scents and flavors that I can think of. Hence, "I smell a bit of coffee in this...", "I taste chocolate and some cherries...", and so on. Things begin to get complicated, of course, once brewers (being the crazy people that they are) begin putting actual coffee and chocolate into their beers.

Initially this seems like it would be a good idea. I'm no purist, after all, and I doubt many beer fans are. I say, the more ridiculous shit that brewers can do to their beer, the better - so long as it works. And chocolate and coffee seem like they would work pretty darn well. Again, how many reviews (like mine - guilty as charged) positively describe, e.g., the chocolatey taste of a beer? Imagine how much the love would increase if one actually put chocolate in!! And so it becomes the most logical thing in the world to dump real chocolate and real coffee into the vats. And the results so far have been... well, let's be kind and say "mixed."

I like chocolate a lot, and so I thought I'd be pleased by the various beers I've had that use actual chocolate to brew. But the truth of the matter is, chocolate mostly gets lost when it enters a beer. It sinks into the background and mostly disappears, leaving only a vague bittersweetness. I thought, when I first bought it, that the Young's Double Chocolate Stout would be brilliant, but it wasn't: instead it was simply a (rather thin and one-dimensional) stout, slightly more bittersweet than others. Nothing bad, of course, just uninspired. Coffee beers, in contrast, go way back in the other direction. Put coffee in anything, it seems, and the coffee simply takes it over - for the three or four of these porters and stouts that I've tried, I might as well have been drinking a big pot of iced-down joe. The only one I'd previously found to be reasonably successful is Kona's Pipeline Porter, and that's only because they obviously did everything in their power to keep the thing as light and as balanced as humanly possible (even so, I could never drink more than one a day).

And so we come to the Founders Breakfast Stout, which the bottle describes as a "Double Chocolate Coffee Oatmeal Stout." That sounds, in theory, like it should be great. Even the all-knowing internet says it's great: RateBeer claims it's the 39th best beer in existence, BeerAdvocate disagrees and says it's the 21st. The rather grotesque baby on the bottle's label seems to agree as well. Then you actually try it, and things start to go wrong.

It pours pitch black, with a moderate viscosity and a tiny bronze half-finger head. That sounds pretty good, right? But then you take a scent, and - oh boy. It's coffee. It's all coffee, all the way down. Go ahead, stick your nose as deep in there as you can tolerate, you're not going to find anything in there beyond coffee. It's the unmistakable smell of a kitchen that's had its joe maker set on Warm for three hours. And that's good if you like coffee, but I like my beers to have other elements.

Take a sip, and what you get is entirely dominated by - you guessed it - coffee. In the front there's a tingly jolt of java bitterness. It quickly coats your mouth in espresso as it travels back, and leaves a bitter coffee aftertaste behind (with maybe a tinge of sweetness for relief). This beer is coffee, coffee, coffee. There could be oatmeal or chocolate or scrambled eggs or even Cinnamon Toast Frikkin' Crunch brewed into this stuff, and I wouldn't taste it at all. If there are any other elements whatsoever to this beer, the one-dimensional coffee taste just beats them back well beyond the margins and keeps them there for the duration of the sipping. The label says this beer is 8.3% alcohol. Do I believe it? Well, sure, but I would have also believed four or sixteen. I honestly couldn't imagine it making much difference: the coffee completely trumps the booziness here, just as it trumps everything else. If you honestly think this is the 21st best beer in the world, well, you're certainly entitled to that opinion. Maybe I'm even missing something in this stout that a more skilled or mature taster would pick up on. In the meantime, however, I tend to think you're simply bonkers.

I'll give it a B, since there's nothing actually wrong with the stuff - it just doesn't have breadth, it doesn't do anything beyond its one trick. And I may complain about the coffee dominating everything, yes, but it's actually a pretty pleasant coffee taste as far as these things go. If you're the type of person who makes your own espresso and drinks it straight, you'll appreciate this stuff far more than I can. As for me, if I wanted a big heavy blast of joe I don't think I'd be drinking a beer for it.

[RETROSPECTIVE EDIT, Feb. '10: you know what? I had this again and found it even more unpleasant. This gets a B- at best.]

Grade: B
Summary: Coffee. Coffee coffee coffee. Coffee coffee, coffee coffee coffee. Coffee? Coffee.

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