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On Tap: The Flavors of Barleywine Can Test Tastes

A selection of barleywines. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)

A selection of barleywines. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)

“What do you think of barleywines?”

As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I knew I’d asked the wrong question. The waitress at this dimly lit, almost monastic Seattle beer bar with a growly Tom Waits soundtrack returned a look as if to say, Are you sure you’re in the right place?

“Well, we just had a barleywine festival,” she said. Not being from Seattle, I had not heard of this “Hard Liver Barleywine Fest.” But I took her point. You don’t host festivals for beer styles you don’t like.

To her mind, there was one clear answer to my question, and anyone who says otherwise should go drink at Applebee’s. Of course she liked barleywine. The proper question was which one I should order.

We are now well into the coldest months of the year, when warming high-alcohol brews are most welcome accompaniments to evenings by the wood stove. To the uninitiated, barleywine is a name that can be read literally. These beers really are wine-strength concoctions of barley and hops. And like grape wine, they grow in complexity with age and can be cellared for years or even decades.

The flavors include all sorts of dark stone fruit, caramel, toffee and molasses. The bitterness is all over the map, with some being just assertive enough to counterbalance the malt sweetness. Others are quite hop forward, even more so than many IPAs.

The style sprang from British farmhouses of the mid to late 18th century, but American brewers have had tremendous influence in the past 20 years, particularly when it comes to hops. Many barleywines from this side of the Atlantic include intense citrus and pine aromas, which while too strong for some drinkers, can bring intense flavor and complexity.

Most of the barleywines I’ve seen appearing lately in the Upper Valley are American, with bitterness levels that have challenged my personal taste.

Among the classics is Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, which the California brewer itself describes as “a strong, robust bruiser of a beer with the refined intensity of a wine.” Like many barleywines, it is vintage dated with the year appearing on its white cap. I’ve got friends who buy cases of this stuff every year and reserve them for annual “vertical tastings,” in which each vintage is sampled one after the next.

Bigfoot is a tremendous barleywine, and at $9 a 4-pack, it is also a relatively good value. But be prepared for the hops. This is a beast, with resiny pine and spicy hop flavors that can ruin your palate after only a few sips. It’s a bit over the top for me, but the hops are also why this beer ages so well. Hops are a preservative and combine with the alcohol to keep this beer intact and improving after 10 years.

San Diego’s Green Flash Brewing has put out a nice barleywine this year. It’s nearly as bitter as Bigfoot, but has a toffee-like sweetness that offsets the hops, the result of a long boil in which the sugars are caramelized. For anyone seeking a less bitter beer, Southern Tier’s Back Burner barleywine might be the way to go. This New York brewery sometimes put out cloyingly sweet beers that don’t always work. The Mokah, an Imperial Stout, is like a boozy Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup that I might have enjoyed cut with a milkshake more than served in a snifter. I didn’t find this to be a problem, however, with Back Burner. It had medium-level hop bitterness and seemed well balanced.

Barleywines are expensive beers to make. They require a lot — lots of malt, lots of hops and lots of time. For this reason, they are often treated as special occasion releases. Something to mark a brewery’s milestone.

This is exactly what Founders Brewing Co. has done with Bolt Cutter. The Michigan brewery is celebrating its 15th anniversary in business with this beer’s release.

Bolt Cutter has rich caramel and cherry flavors, almost like candied fruit. There is also a grapefruit-like citrus. The brewery split the batch and aged some versions in bourbon barrels, others in maple syrup-bourbon barrels (I’ve never tasted maple syrup-bourbon, but now I want some, and not for pancakes) and the final third of the batch with just standard fermentation. The bottle I purchased did, indeed, seem to have some maple flavor to it. But maybe I was just being hopeful.

At $19 for a 22 oz. bottle, Bolt Cutter is expensive and I’m not sure it’s worth the money. But it is a very good barleywine. Bitter, but exceptionally well balanced, it has the foundation of a beer that will age very well.

One reason it’s so expensive is the alcohol punch that it delivers. Bolt Cutter tips the scales at 15 percent alcohol, a salute to every year of Founders’ existence. This is stronger than most wines you’ll find in the grocery aisle, so don’t even try to drink a bottle by yourself.

Which brings me back to the question I’d asked in Seattle. At that time, I had not drank a barleywine in two years, as I was still recovering from my first experience with Brooklyn Brewery’s “Monster Ale.”

I had bought it from a corner store and, overlooking the 10.8 percent alcohol content, proceeded to drink three bottles. Neither my brain nor my liver was ready for this and I spent the better portion of an evening retching over a cold porcelain bowl.

Barleywine is not to be taken lightly. Enjoy responsibly. But please enjoy.

∎ 

Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-272-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.