Thursday, March 10, 2016

In Search Of Bigfoot...Barleywine!

Now in my second year, A Whale A Week is my challenge to try (with an array of beer loving friends) a rare beer for every week of the year.  Last year I had a great time with this and have continued it for 2016.  Not every beer will be a truly "white whale" beer, but all are hard to find and a treat to try!  This week we try something different.  Tired of just trying out one beer (and lets be honest how can I really shrink my cellar at this rate) each week, we're going to break out a bunch of them!

This week we do the first of a two-part series on Sierra Nevada's classic Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale.  This is a beer that I first tried back in the 1990's and promptly spat out in disgust.  How and why would someone create such a bitter beast of a beer?  Sierra Nevada was really one of the first American craft breweries, and is still sitting pretty today as one of the biggest and still most popular.  Their Pale ale was one of the very first commercially available, and really set the guidelines for the whole category (local Summit Brewing was right up there though!)  Anchor Old Foghorn was released back in about 1975 so they held the lead on the modern American Barleywine, starting with a fairly English barleywine malt bill but jacking it up with American hops.  Bigfoot really took the style to new hoppy levels. Bigfoot was first released in 1983 and is now known by most as the default for what the style should taste like.

Screen shot from the infamous Zapruder film...perhaps he's on his way to the pub?

I tried Bigfoot again at a cellared beer tasting by a member of our then-fledgling homebrew club, Brett Schneider. Tasting aged (and more mellow) versions of this hop monster really opened my eyes to the changes that can occur in a beer over time--some good and some bad.  That tasting was around 2006 or 2007 and I've been getting a pack of Bigfoot every year since.  A few years ago Brett moved out of the area and downsized his cellar of vintage beers, leaving me with a fairly epic collection of aged Bigfoot to add to my growing stash.  I've cracked some at brewclub meetings over the years, but this year I wanted to do a more controlled vertical tasting of the beer.  While this beer isn't as rare as some we've tried for A Whale A Week, getting to try a huge vertical going back as far as 1995 is pretty difficult to pull together.  Perhaps I should call this Sasquatch Of The Week?  Yeti Of The Week?  Abominable Snow Man Of The Week?

I invited over Dave Manley--one of the most barleywine enamored guys I've ever known--for this one.  Discovering that Waconia Brewing's illustrious brewer Tom Schufman is a huge fan of this beer, I made sure he could take part as well.  And of course my wife Sarajo helped out despite her lack of love for the hoppier beers.  With 19 years of beers to try, we decided to split this tasting into two parts.  I really wanted to try all of them together in order to better pick our favorites compared to each other--but barleywines are high in alcohol and even two tastings is pushing it!  The second half of the tasting is available to read HERE.  Feel free to crack any old bottles you have in your cellar and taste along with us!  Without further ado, let's raise a glass to the crypto-zoologists of the world!

Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Vertical Part 1

For this first tasting we started back in time...the 1990's!  All of us took notes and came up with a score for each vintage...occasionally going back and either tweaking our scores or retrying the previous vintages to compare.  Your results may vary!  Oh and all of these bottles have been stored in a cool basement out of the light and have twist-off caps.

Bigfoot 1995

Eric: Aroma--lots of sherry, borders on cardboard.  Some cherry and hops are mild.  Very little head--just  wisp.  Plenty of oxidation on the flavor.  Still some bitterness that I pick up as minty.  Still better than expected for its age.  2.75
Dave: Heavily oxidized.  2 sips are plenty.  Hops still present.  2.5
Tom: Peach notes.  Light CO2.  Deep caramel.  Low oxidation flavor, but high in the aroma.  3
Sarajo: Blech.  2.5
Overall Score: 2.67

Bigfoot 1998

Eric: More hops in aroma than 1995.  Earthy, almost musty basement aroma.  Carbonation still pretty dead.  Flavor is vegetal and fungus-like.  "Kids, grow mushrooms in your basement!"  Hopping present but comes off as English hops (EKG or Fuggles).  Bitter cardboard finish.  2.5
Dave: Some oxidation, less than 1995.  Aroma--caramel. Taste--about the same, just 3 years newer.  A bit of a flip from the '95 in that I like the aroma better than the taste.  2.75
Tom: Mold aroma, high oxidation.  Wet cardboard.  Higher CO2 than '95.  Flabby.  Sherry notes.  2.5
Sarajo: Yech.  2.5
Overall Score: 2.56

Bigfoot 1999

Eric: Minty hops mix with oxidation in aroma.  Caramel noted in aroma as well.  Slight carbonation rousable with swirling.  Flavor is getting better.  Caramel but not sweet.  Some sherry cask.  Bitter finish.  A bit aqueous on mouthfeel.  Dark fruit as it warms up.  3.25
Dave: Aroma getting better, flavor improves as well.  A bit fruitier, less caramel on the tongue.  This tastes more British.  3
Tom: Less cardboard, smells like 1998.  Somewhat tart.  Tannic flavors but hoppy finish.  3
Sarajo: 3
Overall Score: 3.06

Bigfoot 2000

Eric: Hoppy aroma--mild citrus--like an orange marmalade with oxidation.  Carbonation still super low, but up from previous vintages.  Caramel increased in flavor, but still not sweet.  Bitterness stronger in flavor.  Oxidation still present but dropping.  Hop flavors of cooked orange rind present.  3.5
Dave: OK, We're getting closer...  3.25
Tom: More plum and dark brown sugar, but yup, still oxidized.  Nice bitterness.  More rounded flavor.  3
Sarajo: 3.25
Overall Score: 3.25

Bigfoot 2001

Eric: More hops and some sherry aroma--increased oxidation from 2000.  Wispy carbonation, but more noted on mouthfeel.  Increased hop citrus flavor.  Bitterness on the end, but not overwhelming.  Brighter overall.  3.5
Dave: Can we get rid of the musty aroma already?  Other than that, starting to really dig it.
Tom: Minty.  Bitter.  Same beer as 2000.  3.25
Sarajo: 3.25
Overall Score: 3.31

Bigfoot 2002

Eric: Seems like less hop aroma this year.  Less oxidation.  Flavor brighter, more orange character.  Easy to drink this one.  Balance is better than any so far.  3.75
Dave: Now we're talkin!  3.75
Tom: Aroma has a hot alcohol note.  Solid malt profile.  Well in balance, but sweet.  3.75
Sarajo: Best of them. 4
Overall Score: 3.81

Bigfoot 2003

Eric: Seems sweeter and more caramel and prunes.  Figs?  Less hop bitterness than 2002.  Oxidation up from previous year.  Drop in score from 2002.  3.25
Dave: A little more oxidation from 2002.  Hotness.  3
Tom: Tannic bitterness is back.  Not much to say.  3
Sarajo: 3
Overall Score: 3.06

Bigfoot 2004

Eric: Sweeter aroma, not much hop.  Mild oxidation.  Flavor has more oxidation and dark fruit along with some hop bitterness to even it out.  More orange/citrus character.  3.5
Dave: Still some oxidation, a little less than the '03.  Still not as good as the '02.  3.25
Tom: Marmalade is back.  Still a bit astringent.  3.25
Sarajo: 3
Overall Score: 3.25

Bigfoot 2005

Eric: Hops are back in the aroma and citrusy.  Carbonation is better, prickly.  Milder oxidation.  More hop bite.  Carbonation improves the mouthfeel on this and makes it more dry.  3.75
Dave: Carbonation helps.  3.5
Tom: Hoppy aroma.  Best balance of the vertical thus far.  Cascade hop on finish?  3.75
Sarajo: 3.5
Overall Score: 3.63

Bigfoot 2006

Eric: Carbonation!!!  Still some oxidation present, but more of a wine barrel effect.  Earthy, piney hops.  This is the stuff!  Orange and pine hop flavors--candied kumquat.  Sweet and sugary, but not cloying.  Finish is off-dry.  Smooth and mellow.  Seems like a cross between and English and American barleywine.  4
Dave: Picking up some nice malt complexity--figs and raisins.  3.75
Tom: Nice carbonation.  Somewhat thinner.  Bright flavor.  More spicy and citrus notes.  4
Sarajo: 3.75
Overall Score: 3.88

This was a fun tasting.  Frankly, I had low expectations for the older vintages and that mostly played out as expected.  Still it was fun to try a beer from 21 years ago!  Heck one of these was probably that vintage I tried fresh back in the 1990's and spat out in disgust!  I enjoyed getting Dave and Tom to take part since both of them are big fans of this beer.  There was a distinct progression of slow loss of oxidation and improved carbonation from oldest to newest with the 2006 being the overall favorite of the bunch.  However, 2002 was an enigma, coming in second overall.  We are currently planning on our second tasting: covering 2007-2015, topped off with a bottle of barrel aged Bigfoot.  If any of my readers tasted along with vintage bottles, please comment on your findings here!

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