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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Barleywine Reviews

In the interest of making our own batch of barleywine a church friend and I decided that a tasting was necessary to convince his wife of the plan. So we traveled to the local quality beer shop 99 Bottles in Federal Way. For anyone that hasn't had the experience of exploring this shop, it's really an amazing place. Beers from all around the world as well as numerous microbrews across the US. They had over 20 different kinds of barleywine, however, being that barleywine is in season during the winter, there was a limited number of available 12 oz bottles. So we picked up a few different kinds, some more barleywine than others.

For those who don't really understand what is meant by barleywine let me take you on a brief tour. Barleywine is generally above 10% alcohol making it a very serious drink. It's got a very rich and malty flavor that brings in a toasted grain and dried fruit sort of flavor. Depending on the variety of barleywine (English or American) the hop flavor can range from mild to assertive but either way the malt flavor should shine through. It's also fairly expensive. I payed $5 for a 7 oz bottle and the same for an 8.5 oz bottle. This is somewhat acceptable as it is a special occasion drink, more to be treated like a dessert wine than an BBQing beer.

We picked up 4 for our taste test that actually ranged a cut wide swath through the field of heavy beers. We had Scaldis Belgian Ale, Rogue Brewery's Old Crustacean Barleywine, Hair of the Dog's Adam, and Mendocino Imperial Barleywine. None of these particular brews fell below the 11% line so we knew we were in for an interesting night.

From left to right: Imperial Barley Wine, Belgian Ale, Old Crustacean, Adam.

Mendocino Barleywine Ale
Appearance - 4.5 : Deep and dark red with a dark tan foam forming a perfect head. Crystal clear. Color makes me think of a really rich Irish Red.

Smell - 4.0 : Smell points to the definite sweetness of the beer. Very malty with no clear sign of hops. Brings preparation for a very strong brew with toasted toffee and caramel in the mind.

Taste - 4.5 : Very rich and sweet. For those hoping for a dryer beer flavor stay away. Initial flavor contains no hop bitterness, very smooth. Brings to mind a vast array of dried fruit flavors, plum, prune, date, fig, and cherry all come to mind. Sweetness points towards a sherry or port flavor. Slight earthy hop flavor at the finish. Very sweet throughout without any noticeable alcohol hotness.

Feel - 4.0 : Thick and chewy without being overwhelming. Very smooth throughout in spite of it's high gravity.

Overall - 4.5 : This is definitely the best barleywine we tasted tonight. Very fitting to expectations. As a port lover, the sweetness it brought with it was very welcome though I can see how others would be less fond of such a sugary beer. My only big confusion here is what Imperial is doing in the name. There wasn't really anything I found Imperial about it.

Scaldis Belgian Ale
As a note this really isn't a barleywine. It's considered a Belgian quadruple ale which basically means a really strong, but regular beer. I figured it'd round out the tasting to see if we'd be interested in a really high gravity but lighter beer.

Appearance - 4.0 : Poured nicely with a decent white head. Light color matching of the Belgian style.

Smell - 3.5: Not very pronounced, slight aroma of something orangish but otherwise could have been any beer we were smelling. No identifiable hop or malty smells.

Taste - 2.0 : Flavor is dominated by a hot alcohol burn but otherwise matching a dry Belgian. Other flavors are brutally swept aside by alcohol flavor. Somewhere near the end the light orange flavor shows back up but you're too busy grimacing to notice it. Could have had a shot or two of vodka accidentally dumped into the bottle.

Feel - 2.0 :  Burning followed by more burning. Density is light for of a high gravity beer but considering the light color it makes some sense. 

Overall - 2.5 : The only positive thing I'll say about this beer is that it's flavor held up when paired with our dessert. Compared to all the others we tasted this night this is the only one that followed a strawberry and still maintained its profile. It also served as a palate cleanser between other beers bringing out a number of flavors we had missed on first taste. However, the same could probably have been achieved by getting a regular Belgian and dumping two shots of cheap vodka in the glass. It'd probably taste about the same and not run you $5 for 8.5 oz.


Rogue Brewery Old Crustacean
First off I'd like to point out that this brew is frequently considered to need significant aging before being ready to drink. We did not do this. We had a 7 oz bottle of 2011 which we cracked open and drank So that's what I'll review here. I'm sure some people are crying out against the crimes we committed against the beer. But all of these brews were off the shelf.

Appearance - 3.0 : The big lack here was under carbonation. Little to no head, nice light amber color. I felt that it poured a bit thin for a barleywine.

Smell - 3.5 : Dominated by a strong American hops smell. I had difficulty tracing down much of any malt aroma through the hops. This promised to pack a punch with all those hops. Right up front. However, smelt more like an IPA to me.

Taste - 3.5 : Big upfront bitterness that ended with a citrus and floral hop finish. Malt flavor absent. No noticeable alcohol burn. Mild dryness overall. This seemed to me to mirror a double IPA and definitely lacked the malt flavor I was seeking in a barleywine. As a double IPA would have been fine.

Feel - 4.0 : Smooth with decent thickness. What I didn't see in the pour I felt when drinking. 

Overall - 3.5 :  My primary disappointment here comes down to expectations and prince. While not a bad beer it really didn't measure up to my expectations of a barleywine. I really feel that I over payed for this beer. At $5 for a 7oz bottle I'd expect flavors I couldn't find in a six-pack of Torpedo IPA. Save some money and just get a double IPA instead.

Hair of the Dog "Adam"
Billed as an Old Ale, not a barleywine but in the end that doesn't make much difference to me. Hair of the Dog also makes an American Barleywine but we figured this would be closer to a British style so it's what we ended up with.

Appearance - 2.0 : Massive, overgrown, and inappropriate head on this beer. Level of foam made me think of a root beer float with the root beer poured over the ice cream. Couldn't actually split the bottle into two glasses without waiting for the head to die down. Otherwise dark color just on the bottom range of black. Foam had a dark tan color and it poured thick and smooth.

Smell - 4.0 : Rich malt aroma tending to the dark malts but not limited there. Some sweet malt smell present but minor. Hops aroma absent.

Taste - 4.0: Easy and smooth start with slight sweetness before drifting towards the bitterness of roasted barley or chocolate, a slight hotness, and finishing with light woody hops. Good complex mix of flavors. The alcohol flavor is present but pleasant mixed in with other malts. Calls to chocolate, figs, and leather, all lightly smoked.

Feel - 4.5 : Thick and well carbonated heading towards syrup but still smooth. Carbonation lasted for a long long time, not surprising considering the initial head. 

Overall - 4.0 : A very fine brew. I'm confused as to the initial size of the head but other than that everything went well. One note I'd make is that this falls short of the richness of an imperial stout by dancing among other flavors. It's a light smoky bitterness, light sweetness, light hop flavor, and light alcohol hotness all rolled into one. With so many flavors I find myself wishing to explore one direction or another a little more but it's nice to find them all in balance.

Final Thoughts
The Mendocino Imperial Barleywine ale clearly won out here. Especially considering its price was almost half of all the others. This led us to want to make a barleywine with heavy inclusion of Crystal 120 and Special B, slight hop bitterness but perhaps a little more earthy hop finish. The Hair of the Dog "Adam" was definitely a good drink but all the dark malts covered up some of the sweetness I was looking for but weren't bold enough to be the focus of the beer. I'd be willing to try a couple year old Old Crustacean if someone pulled one out, but I wouldn't pay to drink it again. I'd personally avoid the Scaldis and settle for a Belgian Double that could be more complex without being so bold.


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