When I went to California a few weeks before the Toronado Barley Wine fest, I was asked what the hell I was thinking. Well, the timing of that trip really wasn’t anything I had influence over, but besides, I was judging the Hard Liver Barley Wine Fest. The Toronado is certainly more famous, as the Hard Liver is only in its fourth year, but it seems to me that it gives the San Francisco fest a run for its money and then some.
Joe McPhee, in his last official act as a Vancouver-based Ratebeerian, and I headed out Friday night to Seattle. As usual, I was dying for an IPA the minute I got across the border. Washington State makes the most consistently awesome IPAs and I get a version of the DT’s if I don’t get that refreshing hop blast every so often.
But since the sun was already setting, we didn’t stop ‘til Seattle. Sticking close to our downtown base, we headed out to hit some local places, starting with McMenamin’s Six Arms. As McMenamin’s go, Six Arms isn’t anything too spectacular, just a big room with some giant windows and bric-a-brac typically of that chain. I like it, though, as we don’t have too many character places to drink in Vancouver. Man, I could rant a while on the corporate nature of Vancouver establishments.
Anyway, we were both hurting for hops and a little food also, and ended up hanging out there for a little longer than anticipated. From there we headed up to Elysian’s original brewpub. I had to go. They did a malt liquor, subtley titled AK-47. A pint of mal’ likka is a bit strange to say the least, but then it was pretty authentic so a forty might have been the end for me. They also had a really hoppy “Australian” brew, dripping in Pride of Ringwood. Interesting, but that really isn’t the best hop in the world. The best new one for me was Whoville Weizenbock. There’s a story in the #1 rater of a brewery paying a return visit a whopping four weeks after his last visit and finding three new beers. That doesn’t happen in just any town.
At this point, it was already past one, which kind of surprised me. We got lost trying to find Stumbling Monk and decided to pack it in, as judging was set to begin in just a few hours.
Sure enough, the clock struck nine…that’s 9am folks…and a whole whack of us were sitting in Brouwer’s for the first round of Hard Liver judging. The group was comprised of beer geeks, brewers, publicans and writers. The tasting was very well organized. The beers came at a decent pace, totally blind, and we were able to get through them all on schedule. I was feeling less than stellar to start but it didn’t take a lot of barley wine to right the ship. Some of the other judges didn’t finish the generous samples, but I sure did. That worked out well because some of them were a bit too cold and needed the extra time to warm up and let the malts show through.
One thing that impressed me was the quality. Most were pretty solid. I judged about ten of them, with four scoring very well and only two scoring poorly. Just one was a glass of mud, contrary to my general experiences with barley wine. Most looked really good, actually. Having heard that the Toronado judging featured a lot of drainpours, I was expecting a rough morning, but this is Washington and brewers don’t get away with making lousy barley wines here. Big isn’t enough, it has to be beautiful, great smelling and well-balanced, too.
The big guns started showing up for the Best of Show round – Northwest Brewing News publisher Alan Moen was there as were Baron Brewing’s Mike Baker, Click Distributing’s Matt Younts and official Bottleworks photographer Pitonka 5000.
As we were wrapping up our last beers, the doors opened and immediately the bar was lined with beer geeks and 3oz sample glasses. Even the most experienced drinkers amongst us had a long list of beers to drink so doing pints was rather out of the question.
The judging done and head feeling good the time for real work began…well, after a bit of food. You’d have to be a really odd duck not to be immediately enticed, when looking down the list of barley wines, by Far West Rye Wine. There’s just not a lot of those out there. Other early picks were the Midnight Sun Arctic Devil and Snipes Roza aged in French oak. I hear about how French and American oak are very different from one another, but I’m still waiting to get them side-by-side with the same beer and same aging time.
The sheet was released matching the judging numbers with the beers tasted. I’d written down three of the four really good ones. They turned out to be Old Guardian, Big Foot and a bit of a surprised – Pacific Rim Castaway. A brewpub in the southern (and thus seldom-visited) part of Seattle, Pacific Rim has a reputation for variability. Well, it was apparently in top form on the day.
The winners were announced. In third place, something of a surprised, Scuttlebutt Old #1, from Everett. I thought it was okay. In second place, Pacific Rim Castaway. Yeah, that was a good one, but after a couple of flights of killer barley wines I found it less enthralling than I had in the morning. The winner was 2004 Doggie Claws.
All told, there were close to fifty barley wines available, and the standard was very high. Host venue Brouwer’s is the antithesis of rival Toronado, being located in the friendly and relaxed Fremont neighbourhood and being a large space very stylishly decorated. Given the venue and quality of beer, I would make Hard Liver my barley wine fest of choice no question.
From the fest, we hit a few other local pubs, ending at the Stumbling Monk in order to make up for the previous night. This is a great, underrated pub in Seattle. Completely laid back, the Stumbling Monk embodies what is great about the Seattle drinking scene. It’s a local corner bar with loads of great beer and not much else. You can buy two things there – a bag of potato chips and beer. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the shit. No liquor pyramids behind the bar, no wine list, and no derivative menu. Just beer.
Aside from the obvious charms, another thing I really dig is the cheap beer they have. Cans of Wittekerke for $2.50. I can’t see anyone in Canada pulling that off. But who said cheap beer has to be shit beer? Who said a decent beer has to cost a fortune? Big cheers. If I had a place like that in my neighbourhood, I’d drink out all the time. But I don’t. I can pay six bucks for iffy service and macro swill if I want. But I don’t want. And that is why I love going to Seattle to drink. Seriously, if I didn’t have to rent a car to get down there, I’d actually save money on a night of drinking, and that includes the hostel.