Beer Review 0550: Pisgah Hellbender Barleywine

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Pisgah Brewing Company is located just east of Asheville, North Carolina, in Black Mountain, and they have placed an emphasis on using local and organic ingredients. Once designated a USDA certified organic brewery, the company recently lost that status due to the limited availability of organic hops. According to Pisgah, other, much larger breweries with more monetary influence gobble up the scarce amounts of organic hops, leaving them no other choice but to use hops from sources that aren’t certified organic.

Nonetheless, Pisgah soldier on, brewing a lot of their seasonal and limited release offerings with local ingredients, while still using organic malts. Pisgah’s flagship beer, their Pale Ale, accounts for 75-80% of its sales. The brewery is rapidly expanding, but still does most everything by hand.

Named after American’s largest salamander, Hellbender Barleywine is brewed with organic brown sugar and Centennial hops. This English-style brew weighs in at 10.3% ABV (alcohol by volume) and is considered a seasonal offering. $1 from each bottle sold is donated to Wild South, a non-profit organization that inspires and empowers people to protect and restore the native ecosystems of the southeast.

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In the glass, Hellbender produces a small, almost sparse soapy cover that quickly disappears. The beer is amber-red in color, with a hazy body that you can’t see through. There are no particles or sediment, and lacing only exists in small sparse dots of foam, placed randomly here and there. It’s fairly typical for the style to my eyes.

The nose is excellent — a thick, base layer of bready caramel sweetness that when allowed to warm and combined with the dark fruits also found in the aroma, equals toast with jam on it. Really very nice, no other way to say it. The dark fruits are explosive with plenty of raisin, fig, and prune; when combined with the stiff alcohol note, you get that delectable rum-soaked raisin aroma going on. The brown sugar lends a ton of sweetness here, and it plays very well to enhance the fruity aspect. There’s a touch of citrus hops to add a bit more depth.

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On the taste, caramel and thick brown sugar coat the tongue, making a nice blanket for a smash of dark fruit — again, raisin, rum-soaked raisins, and prunes — couple it with a underlying breadiness and you’ve got some jam-like qualities. The alcohol is definitely here, but in this case, it adds a layer of complexity to the beer and serves to clean off the palate mid-taste. The second half comes on with a split second of dark chocolate, followed by a transition from sweetness to bitterness in the form of grapefruit from the Centennial hops. The finish is long, and the brown sugar does wonderful things with the bitter grapefruit, really reminding me of a breakfast slice of the fruit coated with sugar. The final parting shot is like a glass of warm herbal tea and lemon. Hellbender is full-bodied, with a medium, foamy texture.

Hellbender is just a really nice beer all around — if you dig Barleywine, you’ll probably love this as it is a classic example of the style with a bit of a sugary and hoppy twist. I love beers that change directions as you drink them, and this one does: from warming sweetness to hoppy bitterness, two thumbs up all the way. I need to acquire more of this at some point, as do you!

Pisgah Hellbender Barleywine, 92 points. Price: $11.50 US for one 22 oz. bomber size bottle.

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