This weekend I hosted a small group of friends to try out some barleywines. This initially started as an excuse to try out a Rogue Old Crustacean Barleywine vertical sampler that my wonderful wife gave me for Christmas, but ended up being a bit more expansive than that.
The AHA Club Only Competition for March is all barleywines, making this meeting fortuitous. Most of the people I invited brought one of their home brewed versions and we started out with a blind tasting of 5 beers. Sj did a great job of bartending for this, pouring beers like a seasoned professional, but neglecting to do the Coyote Ugly treatment of body shots on the bar... For the COC, only one entry per club is accepted so we wanted both the best beer and the closest to style guidelines to be sent on. These competitions are a great way to get your club some brewcred, and Jack Of All Brews has tried to place (making it to BOS at least once...) a few times in the past, but hasn't placed yet. This particular competition is being run by our friends from the Primary Fermenters in St. Paul and I really wanted to get an entry in this one! We had one English and four American versions to try at this meeting, and it came out fairly close between the English and the fourth American. In the end we opted to go for American, because in a head to head battle the higher hopping in the American version is more likely to stand out to a judge. We shall see if we made the correct decision!
After the official club business was done we moved into our vertical tasting of the Old Crustacean, (affectionatley called Old Crusty by fans), Rogue's American barleywine. The main reason I wanted to keep this get-together small was the limited size of some of these bottles. Several of them were 7 oz nip bottles and despite the strength, that much liquid doesn't share more than 7 ways. By popular vote we started old and moved on to younger beers. The first tiny bottle was a dusty old thing from 1998, with a twist-off rusty cap and the old beer logo. The carbonation was nearly gone, but the complexity of flavor was amazing. For several of us this was the favorite. I was shocked at how little oxidation was present in this beer, and what little that was present added interest. Too bad that bottle was so small! For those who have not tried a 15 year old barleywine...buy a few and start ageing them now! Or find some beer geek friends who have been hoarding them. Or do what Sj did and order them directly from Rogue's website. We moved into 12 oz bottles of 2002 and 2003 next. The 2002 was significantly oxidized with lots of cardboard and sherry notes. Still drinkable but not nearly as complex and wonderful as the 1998. The 2003 vintage, despite being only one year different, had very little oxidation and still had a lot of hop bitterness and flavor. Our last was a 7 oz bottle of 2010--very hoppy and suprisingly fresh tasting, good but the older versions were enjoyed much more by all. I did have one ceramic 750 ML bottle of the 2012 vintage, but based on the immaturity of the 2010 we decided to save this for a couple of years. I still have at least one bottle of each vintage and plan on doing another of these tastings in a couple of years to see how they continue to age over time.
I took this opportunity to crack a few other bottles from my dragon's hoard, and some of the guys brought bottles as well. Barleywines are really meant to be shared, and since so many come in 22 oz bottles, I tend never to crack them on my own, making this a great opportunity to try some of these with an appreciative group. High points were this year's Steel Toe Lunker and Town Hall Twisted Jim from last year, both bourbon barrel aged barleywines. 2011 Alaskan Barleywine and Kuhnhenn BBBW were very tasty as well. Founder's Bolt Cutter and Three Floyds Behemoth were very tasty but were really more triple IPA's than barleywines, having way more hop flavor and bitterness than expected for the style. Two disappointments were: the Herc C-130 from Flying Bison that tasted and smelled like freshly laid carpet; and the unintentionally sour Schlafly bourbon barrel aged barleywine. Andrew's home brewed bourbon and oak version was as good if not better than some of the commercial examples we tried.
Our tasting started at 3 PM, since I figured that people would still have all evening to get back to their families and be ready to get up early the following morning for work. I learned something important during this experiment: Barleywines are dangerous. And evil. And really tasty. After a bunch of us took a post-tasting trip to the local Mexican restaurant, we played some PS3 and ended the evening's festivities around 10 PM. Perhaps I am getting way too old for this. This was a fun event and the small size made sampling and critically discussing the beers much easier than at a full club meeting. Trying out the wide range of the style as well as vintage bottles made this educational as well as inebriating. I love this style of beer, especially since I discovered how much they change over time with proper aging. Since 2004 I have been buying a six pack of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine and saving them for a future vertical tasting. I would like to see if any of my friends have any older bottles stashed away to do a larger vertical tasting later in the year.