Beer Review 0300: Founders 15th Anniversary Bolt Cutter Barleywine

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Beer review number 300! I usually try to do special beers for these milestone reviews, and I think this more than qualifies.

2012 finds Founders Brewing Company (Grand Rapids, Michigan) celebrating its 15th year as a brewery. A product of Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers, Founders make some of the best beers produced today — look no further than this website and you’ll see their beers usually average 90 points or more. A couple (KBS, Breakfast Stout) have even scored a perfect 100. But it didn’t used to be that way.

Back in 1997, when Founders first opened, they were more interested in making beers that everyone would enjoy. Simple Pale Ales or Brown Ales… beers that just weren’t memorable. The end result of the mainstream mediocrity was their beer was selling, but they weren’t making enough money to keep the company afloat. Stevens and Engbers received a call from their bank and were told that unless they could make a significant payment on their loan in short order, the brewery would be shuttered and the doors chained shut.

The first thing the men did? They went out and bought a set of bolt cutters. And after that, Founders changed philosophy — they started brewing beer THEY wanted to consume, not the mainstream. Vast success followed, and those bolt cutters never had to be employed.

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The story behind Founders 15th Anniversary Ale is what happens when you follow your heart. I love to tell it in as many of my Founders reviews as I can, because it is inspiring.

Bolt Cutter is a Barleywine that comes in at, you guessed it — 15% ABV (alcohol by volume). This beer is blended; it’s one part aged in bourbon barrels, one part aged in maple syrup barrels, and one part not aged at all. After blending, it was dry-hopped with a large dose of Cascade hops. Founders bottled this beer in July 2012 and allowed it to sit in bottles until its release in November.

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Pouring from the big 750 ml bottle delivered a gorgeous barleywine; it had a nice off-white average size head, very bubbly and soapy in texture, and it lasted. The beer itself was golden-orange in color (much like a shiny copper penny) and had a very hazy body, but no particles or sediment. Lacing was good as you swirled the drink around, but it didn’t leave behind more than traces of suds as I sipped. At 15% ABV, there are alcohol legs for days on this one, which makes it all the more good looking.

On the nose, there’s a heavy malt presence, but an equally weighty hop profile that truly balance each other out, working in harmony. I first detected a generous amount of hops thanks to the dry-hopping; lots of grapefruit and pine. The malts kick in with a blast of caramel and toffee, sweet honey, and hints of bourbon with some toasted coconut. The alcohol is expertly hidden; you could tell this is a high gravity brew, but it didn’t begin to get overwhelming. Bolt Cutter reminded my nose of a sweet candy that had a bitter, almost spicy edge to it. Wildly complex and oh-so-inviting.

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Most importantly, the taste — lots of hops up front, sweet grapefruit and pine. Tons of honey, then caramel and toffee; the maple syrup barrel comes out in the middle, adding to the sweetness. This is a thick brew, creamy in texture and absolutely full-bodied. The finish begins with a blast of alcohol, not overwhelming in taste, but it does warm you to the core; then a big onslaught of very sweet and chewy caramel, a hint of dark chocolate, and finally bitterness that equals the sweet with some fresh piney notes.

As the drink warms, the flavors get more intense, and the alcohol becomes more prevalent.

Wow. This is damn tasty and for sure one of the best barleywines I’ve had to date. That being said, this beer would benefit greatly from downtime, in my opinion. On the finish, the hop bitterness is a little toothy, and I think with a year or two, the finish will be appropriately gentle and sweet. Right now, it’s a bit rough, the transition of very sweet malts to moderately bitter hops. And the bourbon barrel character? Completely missing. The maple syrup part is here in spades.

I wholeheartedly recommend if you somehow find this out there in your beer journeys to pick it up. Hold onto it — I’ve got a few more bottles, and I plan to periodically check in. Review #300! ONWARD!

Founders 15th Anniversary Bolt Cutter Barleywine, 95 points. Price: $14.99 US for one 750 ml bottle.

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3 responses to “Beer Review 0300: Founders 15th Anniversary Bolt Cutter Barleywine”

  1. SGTolie says :

    Heading to Founders tomorrow for the first time. I have read a lot of mixed reviews on this beer but I was going to give it a try if they had it at the brewery. I think I will end up picking up a bottle or two just to hold on to for a while. Thanks for the review!

    • allthesamebeer says :

      I think if you like very hoppy barleywines (like Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot), you’ll probably think this is decent. For such a high alcohol beer, this drinks dangerously easy. I only wish the barrel flavors had come out more, and with some age, perhaps they will.

      Enjoy Founders; I hope to make it there myself someday! Cheers.

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