Styles & Seasonals
February 26, 2004 Written by aracauna
Georgia, UNITED STATES -
Barley wine wasn’t an easy style for me. I came into beer through the malt and early on had an aversion to anything strongly hopped or with strong alcoholic notes. Imperial Stout was the first strong style I enjoyed, the huge malty flavors balancing out the characteristics with which I was less than enamored. Belgian strong ales came next with their huge, yeasty flavors and good maltiness. It took me a year of trying the style to finally develop a taste for barley wines. After the success of my imperial stout tasting about a year ago, I knew I wanted to try my hand at organizing a tasting for another of the strong styles. Having just acquired my taste for barley wines, I picked them as the topic of my next tasting.
It may seem a bit odd that a website that focuses on the Atlanta area would bother with publishing a review about barley wines, none of which are currently available in this state. But with the passing of HB645, which would raise Georgia limit on the alcohol content of beer from 6% to 14% a.b.v., Georgians may be seeing some of these beers popping up in stores later this year.
Knowing that most barley wines are brewed to improve with age, I started the planning a year in advance. I gathered together a group of people who wanted to participate and told them to spend the next few months collecting barley wines for a tasting to be held in the winter of 2003-2004. I was planning for a group of five tasters and told each participant to make sure that they brought at least 20 ounces of each beer.
Flash forward a few months. I started the final arrangements about a month and a half prior to the tasting by contacting everyone who had planned to participate and reminded them that the tasting was coming up. We settled on a date, Jan. 10, 2004, and swapped lists of what beers we planned on bringing to the party. The original group consisted of Atlanta-area beer geeks Keith Peterson (KP), Hank Gay, Mark Romero, Matt Simpson and me. Unfortunately, Mark had to be out of town because of work during the weekend of the tasting. He still donated his portion of the beers to be sampled and told me to fill his spot with someone else. So Mark was replaced by Larry Goldstein about a week before the tasting. After Mark’s contributions and the beer brought to the tasting by everyone else, the lineup for the night looked like this, listed in order of sampling:
1. Dogfish Head Immort Ale
2. Avery Hog Heaven
3. Young’s Old Nick
4. Two Brothers Bare Tree Weiss Wine 2001
5. Adnam’s Tally Ho
6. Brooklyn Monster ’03
7. Full Sail Old Boardhead ’02
8. Anchor Old Foghorn
9. J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale
10. Bear Creek Bearly Barley Wine
11. Fish Tail Leviathan
12. Middle Ages Druid Fluid
13. Victory Old Horizontal
14. Stone Old Guardian
15. Sierra Nevada Big Foot 2003
16. Magic Hat Chaotic Chemistry
17. Rogue Old Crustacean.
The main tricks to running such a large tasting are to, one, take your time and, two, watch the sample size. On the first trick, we poured the first sample not long after 4 p.m. and the last sample wasn’t poured until almost 11 p.m. The tasting was broken into two flights, the first one we attempted to compose of the milder, more English-style barley wines. We tried to save the hoppier, more American-style barley wines for the second flight. In between flights we had dinner of roast beef and roast pork with mashed potatoes and other foods that wouldn’t blow out our palates (kudos to my wife, Kim, for the great meal, by the way). For the second trick, each sample was about 3 oz. It turned out that the 4 oz. I had planned on per sample was more than we needed. While you may want more of a beer to truly get a feel for it, a three ounce sample is often more than enough to know where a beer will place among its peers, especially when you’re tasting its peers during the same session. And of course plenty of water and bread were provided to keep our palates cleansed and us from getting smashed between samples.
The tasting was done blind. Kim, poured the samples in another room and brought them to us. We labeled each review with the order in which the beer came to us and at the end of the night, she announced the name of the beer that went with each number. This way no preconceived notions were allowed to come into the tasting. KP, Hank and I had participated in last year’s blind tasting of imperial stouts and had already realized that sometimes beers you thought were your favorite in the style don’t score so well when you don’t know it’s the beer your drinking. Since Matt and Larry hadn’t experienced a blind tasting on this scale, some of their own reviews surprised them.
Barley wines tend to be fruity and malty and typically range from amber to a medium-brown in color. The carbonation level is often lower and the head size often smaller than that of weaker styles. American-style barley wines tend to be heavily hopped, while English-style barley wines tend to focus more on the malt, yeast and alcohol flavors. It was using these criteria that we scored the beers. After the night was finished and the scores were tallied, here’s how the beers compared to each other, including their averaged ratings on a scale of 1 (worst) to 5 (best):
1. Old Nick, 3.96
2. J.W. Lee’s, 3.90
3. Big Foot, 3.82
4. Old Crustacean, 3.79
5. Old Foghorn, 3.72
6. Hog Heaven, 3.68
7. Old Horizontal, 3.62
8. Old Guardian, 3.62
9. Leviathan, 3.56
10. Monster ’03, 3.54
11. Adnam’s Tally Ho, 3.50
12. Druid Fluid, 3.06
13. Full Sail ’02, 3.02
14. Immort Ale, 3.00
15. Bearly Barely, 2.74
16. Chaotic Chemistry, 2.52
17. Bare Tree, 2.22.
Before I get into the analysis of the beers, I’d like to make a few comments about the reviews in general. Compared to their ratings on this site, these scores look extremely low. Part of this is because we scored the beers in relation to one another. If all of your scores are clustered near or above 4.0, then the difference between first and 17th becomes nearly meaningless. While these beers are, for the most part, all well above the average beer, there were distinct differences in their perceived quality. Another reason for the lower scores was that one reviewer found many of the English-style barley wines boring and another taster was burned out by the hops in the more aggressive American versions. Also, Old Boardhead did not score as well as expected by those who had tasted it before. There was a bit of cheese in the aroma, which knocked it down the rankings, but not enough to make the bottom three. The beer wasn’t off enough to kick out of the sample, but was likely not in prime condition.
I’ll avoid going into detail about each of the beers, but instead focus on the beers that either stood out for their quality or their problems. On the good end, I’ll start with the winner, Young’s Old Nick. This was what I think of when I think of an English-style barley wine. It’s dark and fruity with hop bitterness much lower than its American cousins. There’s a lot of complexity here with notes of vanilla and strawberry mentioned in a couple of the reviews. J.W. Lee’s was one of the more distinctive beers tasted, with a huge honey flavor that struck every taster enough to mention it. It was also the sweetest of the beers we tried, syrupy in fact. It was in part this distinctiveness that helped it rank so highly, I believe, but I’m not sure I could have drunk much more than my sample because of the sweetness. This was definitely a sipping beer. Coming in at number three was one of the quintessential American-style barley wines, Bigfoot. The hops were definitely much more pronounced here than in the other two and it was also less malty, but was one of the better balanced of the American-style barley wines and even managed to keep a bit of distinctiveness that eluded many of the otherwise high-quality beers in the middle of the pack that were actually tasted earlier in the night.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was Bare Tree, coming in at 17. Part of this poor showing came from the fact that it wasn’t exactly a barley wine, despite how it described itself on the label below the name. I already knew that it was a wheat-based barley wine and wouldn’t fit in, but I thought it’d be worth throwing into the mix to keep our senses, or at least our taste buds, from falling asleep. Unfortunately, when you’re expecting a big, malty, hoppy beer and you get a lighter, less hoppy, wheat beer instead, it doesn’t matter that the wheat beer is as big as the other beers. You just notice the lighter body and some of the wheat beer characteristics, such as esters and a slight tartness that throw you off. Despite not scoring it well in the tasting, this was the first beer I finished off after the tasting was complete. It’s unique, but one shouldn’t expect a typical barley wine when trying it.
Coming it at next to last was Magic Hat’s Chaotic Chemistry. The beer was sour (our reviews ranged from calling it vinegary to slightly tart), but the reviews here often call it sour as well, so the beer may or may not have turned. Two of us, Hank and I, appreciated it for at least being different, but the other three weren’t so grateful for the differences. Still, if you had just averaged Hank’s and my score, you’d end up with 3.25, only good enough for 12th place. Coming in at 15 was Bearly Barley wine. This one was basically good except for one major flaw. There was an off-flavor that some described as rubber, others latex, others Band-Aids and still others just called it weird.
For the stats geeks, I’m including the top three beers in every rating category: