Max Stein
The views expressed in db Reader do not represent the views of the drinks business.

Founders Backwoods Bastard

Bourbon barrels aren’t just for aging whiskey, so what can this process do for beer? An exciting and fresh union is in the making!


Since the 1990s, the evolution of craft beer and microbreweries has been a phenomenon in this country, sparking the interest of millions of beer drinkers across the US and igniting in them a passion and a thirst for the unconventional, the bold, and the delicious.

Nowadays, with beer diverging on so many foreign and untraveled paths and taking the avid beer swiller by-the-hand with them, a hunger for exciting and evolved ales is growing rapidly. Many breweries have stepped up to the challenge and have risen with the bubbles to the head of the craft brew movement, bringing with them their passion for making unique beer and their penchant for pushing the boundaries of how we think about this beverage as a whole, and where it can go in the near future. One of these breweries, Founders, is spearheading this drive for bold inventiveness with a very fascinating ale – “Backwoods Bastard”.

Founders Backwoods Bastard

Seasonality: Fall – November
Producer: Founders Brewing Co.
Classification: Beer – Barrel Aged Scotch Ale
ABV: 10.2%
Country of Origin: Michigan, United States
Trivia: This beer is aged 85 feet underneath the city of Grand Rapids in a vast, 6-mile network of caves that used to be old gypsum mines
Availability Info/Look for This: On tap or by the bottle at brewpubs, bottleshops, and bars nearby starting November 1st; available in 4 packs and cases as well

The Founders Brewery, which began brewing for the masses in November of 1997, is situated in the town of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Dave Engbers, one of the founders of Founders whom I had a chance to talk with, actually satisfied his early passions for beer by beginning to homebrew in 1989. With the brewery now keeping a stable of potent and popular brews, some released seasonally, others year-round, and a few rare ones released as a one-time deal, Founders Brewing is responsible for popularising a very fascinating process for certain beers on the craft market. This process, and what makes their seasonal Backwoods Bastard so interesting, is that of bourbon barrel aging.

Founders Backwoods Bastard is, interestingly enough, the end-product of another of their beers that undergoes aging in bourbon barrels; this beer is called Dirty Bastard.

Dirty Bastard is a scotch ale that clocks its abv in at 8.5% and was released to fill public beer glasses around the years 2000-2001. Scotland is known for many things, and their whiskies sure attract a lot of the attention buzzing around the drink culture from that country, but their ales deserve a pedestal of their own. Scotch ales are rich, malty brews, with an enticingly lush, dark ruby color and a billowing head that sometimes requires a specially-designed glass to control it, called a thistle.

Founders Dirty Bastard is no exception, brewed with a variety of a certain type of malt called crystal malts, plus a healthy dose of hops as well. Dave Engbers explained that Dirty Bastard is a little hoppier than standard Scotch ales, registering at 50 IBUs (International Bitterness Units – a scale devised to measure hop bitterness). This is because Founders tends to brew their beers more to taste than to style, making their offerings always slightly off the beaten path as far as a purest to style would be concerned – but that’s not what this brewery prides itself on being about. Since at the time Dirty Bastard was one of their highest volume brands, and since they didn’t want to waste the bourbon barrels they had been playing around with to age some of their other specialty beers, they figured they’d give it a shot with Dirty Bastard.

“There’s a leap of faith. You never know what you’re going to get”, explains Dave. Once they sampled the first results of their experiment, they knew they had a keeper.

Once Dirty Bastard is brewed, this caterpillar is then ready to enter its wooden cocoon, soon to emerge roughly nine months later as an entirely different and evolved creation: Backwoods Bastard. To accomplish this process, the beer is aged in a very special place. Lying 85 feet below the streets of Grand Rapids, a six mile network of craggy, subterranean caves stretches out underneath the city. This cave system where Founders ages their beers is the historic site of old and abandoned gypsum mines, leaving adequate room to house their 1,500 barrels that they utilize annually. This is where the Scotch ale is taken to age, descending below the earth into these caves, where its progress is checked on a monthly basis.

The brewery uses barrels from an assortment of different distilleries, and the quality of these whiskey barrels is inspected meticulously to assure that they are good enough to house their beers; if one of the barrels is not up to par, it simply is not used.

Founders Festival

Founders Festival

As the developing Backwoods Bastard ages silently within the dark walls of the barrel, it is gradually evolving and undergoing a metamorphosis that will turn it into an ale with an entirely different personality than the Scotch ale that started the process.

From the sticky walls of the barrel, it is carefully absorbing certain key flavour notes that will display themselves fully and assertively once the beer finally cascades into your glass and the aromas waft up to your eager nostrils. The barrel gifts the beer with deep and layered notes of vanilla from the oak and smokey, toffeeish notes from the bourbon that was once housed within the barrel.

When you place the two beers side-by-side, you’ll see that the aged creation that is Backwoods Bastard has evolved into an entirely different entity – a hefty and complex brute of a sipper that gracefully weds the two worlds of bourbon aging and beer brewing into a beautiful union. This is definitely one that deserves mention as our world of spirits, beer, wine, and distillates grows and evolves, spreading out to eager consumers and empty glasses like ripples in a pond.

Written by Max Stein with RhoMania, “Helping people enjoy life more, one beverage at a time.”

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