“Making good wine is a skill. Fine wine is an art.”
Robert Mondavi, “Harvests Of Joy,” Autobiography
Barleywine is not wine, but it’s just as much of an exquisite liquid to consume and enduring test to create. Not only is making a great barleywine an accomplishment, drinking this lovely libation can bring out the inner artist (or rock star) in us all. Yes, barleywine is truly the ale of kings and several samples can make one feel rich, not just from the hefty alcohol content but from the artistry each sip represents. This was definitely the case with the Winking Lizard’s 2nd Annual Barleywine Festival, as a group of fortunate craft beer lovers were given the chance to witness all that is the mighty barleywine. The Winking Lizard had done their part by bringing a bunch of world class high ABV beers to the Independence party room, all that was missing was a room full of artists, rockstars, and barelywine fans.
We arrived just as the doors opened and were greeted by several Winking Lizard employees. Each guest was handed an awesome small snifter and a guidebook that explained all the options available. For just $30 we got to try ten of the best examples of the style in the world (including one from Cleveland), not to mention great food and conversation! In the end, these 5 beers were my favorites, but there wasn’t a bad beer in the bunch!
The Brew Kettle’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Jackhammer Barleywine
The base beer here is one of my favorites, and also one of Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head’s choices at the Grapes VS Grains pairing at Cleveland Beer Week. So, what happens when this goes in a barrel? The resulting beer is huge like it’s namesake and can stand out in a field like we sampled at this event. Clocking in at a whopping 11% ABV, Brew Kettle Bourbon Barrel Aged Jackhammer takes a GABF medal winning beer and kicks it up ten notches. Notes of cherry pie, dark fruit, toasted malt, caramel and bourbon fill the air when this is poured. One taste and I’m convinced: we have an amazing beer on our hands here. There’s a wonderful malty taste – caramel overload, toffee and a touch of toast that intermingles with a kiss of hops, resulting in a nice residual bitterness that doesn’t overwhelm. Some bourbon fades to barrel notes and leaves me with a sweet, woody taste in my mouth. This is just an outstanding beer and it makes me feel lucky to be a Cleveland area resident who loves big, malty barrel-aged beers!
Sierra Nevada Jack and Ken’s Ale
Sierra Nevada puts out great special release beers, and the 30th Anniversary series was no exception. The great thing is this beer is just coming of age and should age well for years to come. Its smell is luxurious and deep. The hops are prominent and expressive, giving some hints of citrus and pine. No surprise there, but what is unique is the roasted malt that gives off hints of coffee and chocolate in lieu of the caramel and toffee that “non-black” Barleywines offer. I find the combination intriguing but I’m also wondering what makes this so different from the black IPA’s or hoppy stouts I’ve had in the past. The taste proves why this is classified as a Barleywine. There’s a ton of hops dancing around my mouth, leaving their mark with grapefruit bitterness. If the hops are having a hoe-down, the dance floor is the malty base which is easily solid enough to be trampled upon with such ferocity. There are hints of chocolate and maybe even coffee, and their contribution feels expertly dialed in. This manages to avoid becoming burned or too roasted. Finally, a noticeable boozy kick gives a small sting as this slides down my throat. Easily the best beer Sierra has released in years! The hops are staring to fade and something stunning is emerging!
Founders Nemesis 2010
In the dictionary, several antonyms are listed for the word ‘nemesis’ including blessing, good, and godsend. Does that mean Founders is positioning this series of ever-changing strong beers to be the opposite of good? Nope, and here’s proof – Nemesis is a crazy and rewarding ride, starting off with huge sweetness from the malt, almost reminiscent of dark cherry or raisin. Then, a forest of pine and grapefruit trees slams the palate. The beer is so aggressive and the malt seems to drop in and out, re-emerging as roasted coffee and chocolate. This is a roller coaster of flavor, ending in a huge tunnel of booze and bitterness. A few more years of age will tell if this beer becomes a legend in its own right. I’m optimistic for this – I think it’s already on the way in fact. But, even if Webster disagrees, I can prove this beer is a godsend right now – after all, the word Nemesis does stem from the name of a Greek Goddess of retributive justice. So there, English majors, put that in your snifter and quaff it.
JW Lee’s 2007 Harvest Ale
Another huge beer, this legend from overseas captured the “best in show” votes from many in attendance according to my informal poll. In a field that was dominated by American Barleywines, which feature huge hops, an English Barleywine can stand out with its malt focus and sweet boozy finish. That was the game plan for this old friend from across the pond! It looks great in my commemorative snifter, now let’s see how it smells. There’s a huge caramelized malt, barely and sweet golden raisin vibe to the nose, accompanied by a wonderful touch of booze and oxidation. The candied fruit and toffee flavors in the taste make this stand out, and the sweet brown sugar and alcohol at the end of the tasting experience are simply inexplicable. The beer is a touch syrupy, but the taste makes it more of a reward than a distraction – it’s like the beer is hanging around so I can taste every drop. I think this is a legendary English Barleywine, and there are several great barrel treatments out there too! With a base beer like this, the sky is the limit for aging!
Stone 2005 Old Guardian
One of the Stone Brewing representatives was on hand and brought a firkin we assumed was full of “Belgo” Old Guardian, an “Odd Year” beer from Stone that just arrived in town. However, the beer in the firkin was just “regular” Old Guardian. Not to worry, though…there was a special treat from Stone that would be an extraordinary tasting experience. The rep brought a bottle of 2005 Old Guardian that had been aged properly for the last 6 years, waiting for this day. The normal hop punch of this beast of a beer had lied down considerably. There was some oxidation, but huge notes of toasted malt, breadiness, and caramel. Some booze is still poking its head out, but this is quite drinkable. I was fortunate enough to try a wine barrel treatment of this beer last year, but I must say the “regular” aged version is actually quite extraordinary when aged. This beer doesn’t need a barrel to have a great depth of flavors, it only requires proper patience and 6 years of cellaring. Thanks to our great Stone representatives for bringing out a nice treat!
Thanks to the Winking Lizard for another great event. Making fine barleywine is a true art, and throwing such a fun event is truly beer craftsmanship! Thanks to our hosts and all the exuberant imbibers.
Second Annual Winking Lizard Barleywine Festival Photos and Photo Gallery
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