Founders Curmudgeon's Better Half is styled as the "better half" of Old Curmudgeon, their Old Ale. The marriage occurred when Old Curmudgeon took nuptials with a bourbon barrel and they honeymooned in Kentucky whiskey. Released in February, I knew two things about this beer as the release date approached. First, it was going to be a difficult acquisition. It's part of Founders Backstage Series of barrel aged beers, a lineup that includes the heralded CBS and Blushing Monk. Backed by the Founders brand there's sure to be a feeding frenzy every time. Second, the beer was going to be rich, supple, and at least a bit sweet. Whatever the effects of the bourbon, it was certainly not going to strip away the caramel and dried fruit goodness of the base beer, the husband, if you will, Old Curmudgeon himself.
Naturally, I missed out on my local bodega's release of this. They staged a raffle where you paid a dollar for the right to buy it, the money pledged to some undisclosed charity. Now that I think about it, remind me to call them about where exactly my money went - probably some offshore account in the Caymans. Maybe we'll revisit that. Fortunately, the good folks at Northdown Cafe and Taproom delivered on having some on tap despite publicizing the Better Half tapping at least a month in advance.
The night I tried it, I was supposed to meet friends at Fountainhead, one of whom brews for Dryhop, a fledgling Chicago brewer and makers of a delicious, sessionable wheat IPA I've sampled that has several working titles I won't reveal (think macro scale weaponry). On my way, I was - er - detoured to Northdown to secure my share of Better Half. Its keg surely would not survive the night given its heavily allocated release and all of the usual barrel aged brewing hype.
Better Half delivered on its strong promise with some interesting surprises. It arrived in my hand in a 10 oz. mini pint with a bulbous, two finger head slightly billowing like a puffy cumulus over the rim. The strongest smell I detected was that of maple syrup. Carbonation is moderate, it licks at the palate. What's remarkable, perhaps confounding, is the flavor. I've never had a beer quite like it.
At first blush it's sweet with some raisins and a bit of cherries. Vanilla, molasses, and a tart flavor quickly expand across your palate. Bourbon shows strongest in the lengthy finish where the alcohol flavor continues to creep up on you. This is all backed by an underlying licorice flavor that's always towards the back of your palate. Bourbon barreling softens the edgier parts of Old Curmudgeon, namely the grainy, earthy undertones. Those are buried beneath a cadre of more prominent flavors. It finishes a bit drier than you might expect.
Better Half represents the marker between brewing and art. It's not quite the beer haute couture as are some of the Dogfish big bottlings but it's not an everyday beer you grab for watching the Bears game, not even on a craft beer scale. This is an impressive and flavorful beer of amazing complexity, but one I'd want to have once or twice a year. For my palate, the sweetness and the complexity do not lend themselves to everyday drinking, let alone the 10% ABV. Drinking too many rich beers like this will soon kill your palate for drinking beer regularly. Still, it's a unique and excellent entry and I hope you can find some and share your experience with us. Don't forget your friends too.
4.6 of 5 stars.