More will come of my very interesting day yesterday, once I’ve had a chance to sift through my notes and ponder the implications upon my life. Actually, I’m being overdramatic as usual, but it was a very fun and educational day of beer. I am down in Charleston, SC right now, as I am in a wedding on Saturday. The wife and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and come down a couple days early and do some beer stuff. One of the stops on our tour was the Charleston Beer Exchange. I’ll write in more about the Beer Exchange, but while I had some down time in between stops, I wanted to highlight a unique experience.
The guys at the Beer Exchange were able to get their hands on three differenent vintages of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot barleywine: 2007, 2008, and 2009. We were able to sample all three in order from oldest to youngest, then youngest to oldest, and then randomly one more time for good measure. It was really neat to see how the character of the beer changed with age.
Just to take a step back, for those that may not know what a barleywine is, it is traditionally a strong ale, ranging from 8% to 12% or more ABV. It is usually very sweet and can have fruit-like flavors. The sweetness of the flavor and the heavy body often give it a wine-like consistency, but since it is beer it is dubbed “barleywine.” Most barleywines I have tried have subtle, if any, hop character in the aroma or flavor. But if you know Sierra Nevada, they are never subtle about their hops.
According to Sierra Nevada, they have not changed the recipe of Bigfoot, so any differeneces in character should be attributed to the aging of the beer. First we tried the 2007 Bigfoot. It was very smooth with, surprisingly, a subtle hop character. The malt flavors really stood out and it was a very pleasant beer. It reminded me most of some other barleywines I’ve had.
After that it was on to the 2008. The hop aroma and flavor was much more apparent in this one. You could instantly tell this was Sierra Nevada. However, the 2009 took the hop aroma and flavor to an even higher level. You could catch the hop aroma from several inches above the glass, and it had a nice hop bite. For hopheads out there, it was well balanced with the malt flavor, but was anything but mellow.
I actually liked the 2007 vintage the best, with 2009 coming in second. (If I’m not careful, I might have my hophead card revoked soon.) The 2008 was a tweener and I’d rather be on one end of the hop spectrum or the other. If the hops is there, then bring it. Otherwise I’ll take a nice, smooth sippin’ beer like the 2007.
As far as aging beers, most beer styles are best when they are fresh. Most beer will stay good for some months, but doesn’t improve with age. However, many of the imperial styles with high alcohol content, like barleywine and imperial stouts, can become more complex or mellow with few years under their belt.
It was really interesting to see how the hop character of the Bigfoot slowly gave way to the malt over the course of a couple years. So if you can stand the temptation of having some really good beer sitting in a closet for a couple years, give it a try. It might just be worth the wait.