Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Return of Bigfoot!

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 second 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 as the default for what the style should taste like.

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.  For the second tasting we also brought in noted award winning homebrewer and beer judge Kevin Meintsma.  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!  If you want to check out the first round (1995-2006) you can read it HERE.  Without further ado, let's raise another glass to the crypto-zoologists of the world!

Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Vertical 2007-2015

Bigfoot 2007

Eric: Aroma--Cardamom, honey, oxidized citrus.  Appearance--Only slight carbonation, and a bit murky.  Flavor--Definite oxidation and a minty-fresh finish.  Reminds me of herbal tea with orange peel.  Astringent finish.  2.75
Kevin: Aroma--Oxidation!  Maraschino cherry.  Some hot alcohol.  Caramel.  Low plastic.  Appearance--Legs.  Flavor--Slick.  Malty-caramel and sweet.  Moderate sherry oxidation, not unpleasant.  Med-high body.  Sharp tang in the finish.  No carbonation.  2.5
Tom: Appears flat.  Oxidation!  Molasses, plum, caramel forward.  Bitter finish.  3
Dave: Love the malty aroma--caramel.  Slight oxidized, vegetal, but not close to the older ones.  Not a lot of hop aroma, but plenty of hop flavor and bitterness.  3.25
Sarajo: Something unpleasant in this one.  2.75
Overall Score: 2.85 (Very oxidized and a bit astringent.)

Bigfoot 2008
This is the first year that Sierra Nevada used a non twist-off cap.  This was also the 25th Expedition and had a different label than all the other vintages.

Eric: Appearance--Lighter in color.  Better carbonation than any thus far, but head still fades fast.  Aroma--Brighter hops, more orange peel and a hint of grapefruit.  Caramel.  Flavor--Much better balance than previous.  Front end is bright citrus hop and then notes of toffee.  Middle has a bit of earth and sherry cask tannin.  Finish is bitter but not overly so.  Carbonation is much improved.  3.5
Kevin: Aroma--Low oxidation.  Slight molasses/honey aroma.  Moderate alcohol.  Low caramel.  Appearance--Low head.  Very clear.  Flavor--Sharp oxidized malt flavor.  A bit unpleasant.  Burnt malt.  Some low molasses flavor.  Kind of smokey phenolic in the finish.  Low sweetness.  Good carbonation for an old beer.  2.5
Tom: Hoppier aroma--oranges?  Hoppy flavor.  Bitter finish with a hint of spice?  Sherry cask.  Nice.  3.5
Dave: Smells like a hamster cage.  Nice carbonation finally!  Less tannic than 2007.  Better flavor profile.  Definite hop finish.  3.5
Sarajo: Less hops as it warms up...or my tongue is getting numb... 3.25
Overall Score: 3.25 (We all like the carbonation, but Kevin is a hater.)

Bigfoot 2009

Eric: Aroma--Smokey phenol at first that reminds me of candied caramelized bacon.  Fades to a fleeting orange aroma.  Appearance--Deep orange color.  Fine off-white head is persistent.  Flavor--Sweeter than previous vintages this round.  Bit of a dreamsicle flavor with orange and caramel/vanilla.  Body medium.  Alcohol present and warming.  Mild oxidation.  Balance is nice.  Finish off-dry with slight bitterness from hops.  3.75
Kevin: Aroma--Low spicy hops.  Moderate caramel malt with slight molasses.  Moderate alcohol.  Citrus hops as it warms.  Low to moderate oxidation, some sherry.  Appearance--Low head clings to rim.  Flavor--Moderately high citrus hops--tangy orange rind with a light oxidized or burned note.  Low sherry-like oxidation.  Lingering caramel and a low plastic phenolic.  Thick/chewy.  Moderate to low carbonation.  Slick with big alcohol.  3.25
Tom: Nice carbonation.  Cherry, hoppy, black licorice in aroma.  Thinner mouthfeel.  I feel the tannic slight tart finish is back, yet still bitter.  3.25
Dave: After oxidation I pick up a spice aroma of rosemary or cardamom.  Hop bitterness more pronounced than others.  Minty, floral, malty.  I could get through a bottle of this.  3.5
Sarajo: I like this a lot better.  3.75
Overall Score:  3.5 (Spicy/herbal and a bit of phenol, but getting better!)

Bigfoot 2010

Eric: Aroma--Strong orange rind.  Hint of pine tree or juniper.  Honey notes.  Barest hint of phenolic.  Appearance--Good thick off-white head is persistent--best yet!  Flavor--Sweet start with a caramel and burnt orange peel flavor.  Carbonation is high with an almost creamy mouthfeel.  Finish is mouth-coating bitter oranges.  Less alcohol than '09.  3.5
Kevin: Aroma--Low earthy hops with citrusy support.  Malt is more subdued, some golden raisin oxidation.  Low sharp tang--probably aged/oxidized hops.  Flavor--Toasty/bready malt--very nice.  Some nice moderate toffee notes.  Hops are citrusy, bitter orange and little earthy.  Big hoppy finish, plenty bitter.  More complex.  Slick.  Not hot but big alcohol.  Moderate body and carbonation.  3.75
Tom: First time I've really noticed alcohol in the nose, along with spicy notes.  Caramel and hops (piney), candied orange rind with a firm, bitter finish.  3.75
Dave: Great carbonation--lifts the aroma, hits the tongue.  Can't place the hop aroma but it's nice.  Some maltiness/caramel in the aroma too.  3.75
Sarajo: I'm bitter enough on my own...  3.5
Overall Score: 3.65 (Carbonation is the best yet, more citrus hops present.)

Bigfoot 2011

Eric: Aroma rife with powerful fresh orange pulp.  Hint of caramel.  A hint of herbal-rosemary?  Flavor is fairly bitter from start to finish, but still pleasant.  Finish is a tad astringent.  Orange and malt in the middle--only really noted on the second or third taste once you get used to the bitterness.  Some alcohol warming.  The most bitter yet, but I like it!  3.75
Kevin: Aroma--Oxidized citrusy hops.  Low bready malt.  Tangy lightly burned orange rind.  Appearance--Light lacing, persistent head.  Flavor--Moderately toasty malt, immediately replaced by citrusy oxidized hops.  Nice supporting caramel and a low buttery diacetyl note--rather pleasant.  Sweet finish.  High bitterness.  Good balance.  Mouthfeel--Body pretty big--slick.  3.75
Tom: Bright hop nose, still orange in aroma.  Much less oxidized.  This actually tastes fresh and is fairly dry.  Molasses on finish with hops and bitterness.  3.75
Dave: Malt aroma more assertive each year.  Hops are fresher--piney and floral.  Bready malty flavor.  Hop bite in the end.  3.75
Sarajo: Too bitter.  I feel like I want to scrape my tongue off.  2.75
Of note: all four of the guys independently gave this the same score and mentioned that they almost gave it a 4.
Overall Score: 3.55 (Just on the edge of getting a 4, getting fresher and better balanced.)

Bigfoot 2012

Eric: Aroma--Bright citrus.  Leaf hops--cascade?  Flavor--Again bright and fresh tasting.  Tons of citrus flavor.  Balance is to the bitter side, but still has plenty of malt and flavor complexity.  Herbal/minty hop quality as warms.  Alcohol present, but not hot.  Balance is key here.  4
Kevin: Aroma--Big hops--citrus/orange rind, resin.  Light minty aroma as it warms.  Low oxidation.  Appearance--Head lingers, lacing is light.  Legs!  Flavor--Wonderful bready malt--toffee notes behind.  Bitterness exactly balances the malty--perfect!  Moderate alcohol.  Sherry notes in finish.  Very smooth.  Mouthfeel--Good carbonation.  Slick.  Fairly thick. 4
Tom: Aroma still orange (tangerine?) hoppy.  Way more malty than 2011.  Tangy finish.  3.75
Dave: Picking up candy sugar in the aroma.  Floral, less piney.  Metallic/phenolic flavor profile.  3.25
Sarajo: Better than the last one!  3
Overall Score: 3.6 (Very bright and citrusy, very well balanced.)

Bigfoot 2013

Eric: Aroma--Tangerine with a hint of oxidation creeping back in. Alcohol zip.  Pine as it warms up.  Flavor--Strong happy hoppy citrus flavors.  Maltiness and toffee is stronger in this vintage.  Good balance, making this very easy to drink.  Bitter but not astringent finish.  Honey flavors as warms.  4
Kevin: Aroma--Low citrusy/honey hops.  Tangy oxidized malt.  Resiny.  Light, pleasant molasses and sherry.  Appearance--Persistent head with lacing.  Flavor--Really nice malt.  Lots of toffe--raisin, cherry.  Bitterness mod-high, citrusy/resiny hops.  Still a little tang in the finish--bitterness lingers.  Pair this with a cheesecake!  Mouthfeel--Thick, sweet, clearn.  Good carbonation.  4
Tom: Dried orange peel, hoppy!  Citrus and spice.  Still dry, but malt really shining as it warms.  Smooth finish.  Well balanced.  4
Dave: Piney, floral, herbal, honey-sweet aroma.  Almost a mead sweetness.  Love the biscuity malt.  Hops hit at the end.  Bright.  Drinkable.  4.25
Sarajo: Would be OK with food.  3
Overall Score: 3.85 (The best of the lot yet!  More malt, but good balance with the hop bittering.)

Bigfoot 2014

Eric: Aroma--Strong pine and freshly grated orange rind.  Flavor--Even more fresh and bright orange flavors.  Some pine tree sap bitterness.  Bitter finish compared to previous vintages.  Biscuit maltiness present but almost as an afterthought.  4.25
Kevin: Aroma--Bright citrusy hops.  Low honey.  More fresh, but less complex aroma.  Flavor--Amazing malt!  Bread crusts, toffee, raisins, figs.  Sweet.  High bitterness.  Citrusy and minty hop flavors.  A little too bitter---less is more!  Low oxidation.  Still a tangy finish.  4.25
Tom: Minty, candy, orange, zesty?! hop aroma.  Nice cracker malt and caramel forward.  Complex!  4.25
Dave: Slight step back--a bit more alcohol hotness.  I like the malt complexity.  4
Sarajo: 3.5
Overall Score: 4.05 (Stronger hopping and better malt complexity.)

Bigfoot 2015

Eric: Aroma--Alcohol is pretty apparent.  Biscuit or cracker malt.  Grapefruit and mint.  Flavor--Malt forward and sweet honey flavors.  Orange marmalade--reminds me of the older vintages from pre-2007.  Strong alcohol--pretty hot.  Less hops than expected.  Mouthfeel is coating and creamy.  Needs more time.  3.75
Kevin: Aroma--Fresh citrusy hops but lower intensity.  Nice malt.  Alcohol.  Appearance--good retention.  Flavor--Light caramel malt, toasty, bready.  Hoppy bitterness is perfectly balanced.  Resiny hops.  Not very complex.  3.75
Tom: Less hoppy aroma than 2014.  More malty, but booze!  Firmly bitter, almost harsh.  A downgrade.  3.75
Dave: Might be the only one where the malt equals/exceeds the hops.  Piney/resiny.  Big caramel malt.  First one I've had that I've thought needs more time.  3.75
Sarajo: 3
Overall Score: 3.6 (Hotter alcohol and less complexity overall.)

Barrel Aged Bigfoot 2015

Eric: Aroma--Boozy!  Bourbon sharpness and oak tannin fades to a more vanilla as it warms.  Caramel.  Pine aroma but minimal orange.  Slight sulfur.  Appearance--Deep orange, darker than most vintages.  High carbonation with a wispy head.  Flavor-- Sweet orange, vanilla, brown sugar.  Fairly strong booze warming but not solventy.  More complex and smoother than most of these.  Reminds me of the 2002 from the previous tasting.  4.5
Kevin: Aroma--Light caramel.  Low woody oak.  Low resiny hops (no citrus).  Lots of vanilla, low sherry.  Appearance--Serious head.  Flavor--Really nice vanilla and bourbon flavor.  Faint oak.  Very low hop bitterness.  The characteristic citrusy/resiny hops are low. Balance to the malt in a big way.  Pair this with a creme brule.  Wonderful beer!  4.25+
Tom: Boozy-whiskey aroma at first.  Nice sweet malt character with hints of toast and vanilla.  4.25
Dave: Bourbon, toasted oak, marmalade, coconut aromas.  Coconut on flavor as well.  Bourbon sweetness compliments the hops.  Bananas Foster!  4.25
Sarajo: Still a little hoppy.  4
Overall Score: 4.25 (This was the winner of the night, but cheating a little since it was barrel aged.)

After all was said and done, this was a very fun experience!  Just getting a group of knowledgeable beer people around a bar and tasting beers is cool, but getting to try vintages of beer starting back as far as 1995 and going through 2015 was stellar.  This is the payoff for all that time cellaring these bottles away in the dark recesses of the basement!  The 2007 was still pretty oxidized but we had increased carbonation and drop in oxidation once they switched to pry-off caps.  Hop aroma and flavor increased from then on as well.  There were still some ups and downs year to year.  The 2015 we all felt could use some more time--and seemed higher in alcohol--even when compared to the 2015 barrel aged version!  Based on this data, I'd say the ideal age for Bigfoot is about 2-4 years old.

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