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Redux Review 0021: Lagunitas Olde Gnarlywine Barleywine

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Back on April 14, 2012, when I first reviewed this beer, I pegged it as a brew that would likely age nicely. Today, we’re here to find out…

Two years ago, Lagunitas had just announced that they would be expanding from just one facility in Petaluma, California to two — the second would be located in the middle of the country, Chicago, to take advantage of distribution opportunities. Lagunitas have almost completed the new facility and are currently running test batches in preparation to crank up to full production.

Olde Gnarleywine is a limited release, a Barleywine that rings in at 10.6% ABV (alcohol by volume). The “Gnarleywine” name comes from the fact that Lagunitas says this is a hard one to make, and the beer sits in tanks for over a month to get everything right.

My initial review went like this:

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Appearance: 15 of 15 points
Aroma: 15 of 15 points
Flavor and Palate: 31 of 35 points
Drinkability and Overall Experience: 33 of 35 points

Final Score: 94 points, or outstanding on my rating scale.

Let’s see where we stand, two years later; remember, this is a 2011 bottle, so it’s actually three years old…

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The pour produced an average size, creamy head that lasted. The beer was amber-brown out of light; quite murky and muddy looking. In bright light, it’s a beautiful cloudy bright red, with tangerine highlights. There’s a light dusting of sediment in the beer, making it opaque. Lacing is excellent, leaving thin, solid sheets of crisp foam.

The nose has only gotten more complex with age; there’s sweet caramel and toffee throughout the sniff, with flashes of milk chocolate, booze, and dark fruits (raisin, fig, and prune). It’s a very sweet smell but the booze seems to temper it just a bit — there’s also a lingering hop presence in the form of some grapefruit and pine, with some orange/citrus spiciness. As it warms, an herbal lemon tea begins to come out — more on this in the flavor description.

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Sadly, the taste didn’t really keep up with the delightful aroma. Initially, there’s plenty of caramel and toffee, and it hangs around for awhile; middle of the mouth features some faded grapefruit hops, and sugary sweet milk chocolate. But I began to notice as this brew warmed that an herbal lemon flavor started to come out more and more, and it’s medicinal, like a cough drop. At first, it blended well with everything else; but halfway through the glass, it started to take over. The finish is hot with alcohol, riding out lemon, caramel, and heavily toasted bread. These flavors didn’t really meld well, but it wasn’t awful. Without doubt, Gnarlywine is full-bodied, and has a thick, foamy mouthfeel. And the further you got into the bottle, the more the finish hit that same herbal lemon cough drop note.

A couple of notes here: first, this beer really reminded me of Lagunitas Imperial Stout (85 points) in terms of amount of sweetness. In fact, in my review of that beer, I called it an “Imperial Stout-Barleywine.” Secondly, this beer really didn’t age well. The flavors changed for the worse and the alcohol simply didn’t budge. I think those hop flavors that were so good in the fresh bottle turned into a honey-lemon cough drop and the toasted (nearly burnt) bread on the finish never really went anywhere. I do recommend you try this beer as it is a bit of a unique take on Barleywine, but do it fresh.

Lagunitas Olde Gnarlywine Barleywine, 88 points. Price: $3.99 US for one 22 oz. bomber size bottle.

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Beer Review 0597: Victory Old Horizontal Barleywine Style Ale

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The story of Victory Brewing Company (Downington, Pennsylvania) goes all the way back to 1973 — granted, the two principal founders were only in fifth grade, meeting for the first time on a school bus that would take them to a new school. Friends like that are hard to find; the two remained bonded as they went to college, on opposite sides of the coast.

Their names are Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski, and when Bill finished college, he explored making beer using his father’s home brewing equipment. It just so happened that Ron was into beer, too, and gave Bill a home brewing kit for Christmas in 1985. A friendly rivalry ensued, but the passion for beer caused both men to quit their jobs in the corporate world and seek out brewing.

Bill did his brewing studies at Doemens Institute in Munich, Germany, while Ron also honed his beer making skills in Germany. But before Victory churned out its first drop of beer, Ron returned from Germany and became the brewmaster of Old Dominion Brewing Company, increasing yearly production there from 1,500 barrels to 15,000.

On February 15, 1996, Victory Brewing Company opened up in a former Pepperidge Farm factory. In the first year, they made 1,725 barrels; in 2011, expansion had increased that number to 82,000.

At 11% ABV (alcohol by volume), Victory’s Old Horizontal is one of the most potent beers in their lineup. This Barleywine is brewed with imported German 2-row malts and whole cone American hops — the name, ‘Old Horizontal’ stems from it’s alcohol potency; have more than one of these and you might find yourself horizontal. Available only in the winter, this beer comes in 22 oz. bomber bottles.

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The pour issued forth a large, creamy, long-lasting head that was light brown in color. The beer was amber in color with lighter orange highlights; the body appeared murky but there weren’t any particles or sediment to be found. It does say on the label that this beer is bottle conditioned, but I didn’t find any yeast dregs in the bottom of the bottle. Lacing was excellent, leaving behind thin and sticky sheets of patchy foam.

There’s a ton of complexity on the nose; the hops hit first with plenty of pungent grapefruit, pine, and oranges. Competing just as strongly with the hops are the malts: waves of sweet caramel, sweet bread, toffee, burnt sugar/molasses lead to a rich bounty of dark fruits (raisin, prunes, and figs). The dark fruits and bready sweetness become more pronounced as the beer warms. There isn’t a noticeable alcohol scent. Very nice.

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On the palate, there’s a thick layer of grapefruit, pine, and sweet bread up front. The hops really linger quite long, and I think it’s partly thanks to the thick mouthfeel this brew possesses. Those hops ring out like they were just harvested — really fresh and pungent, but the middle of the mouth sees the malt take over with a big blast of dark fruit and sugary sweetness. It really is a battle of sweet versus bitter, then the warm fusel alcohol begins to take over and clean things up; the finish brings grapefruit rind, thick caramel, and alcohol bite. Old Horizontal is full-bodied, to say the least, with a thick, foamy texture.

Without a doubt, this is a fantastic beer, but it really comes down to personal preference here: do you like your American Barleywine to be more hoppy or malty? Right now, I’d classify this as being extremely hoppy, and quite hot in the alcohol department. My tastes could go either way, I dig ‘em both — but in my opinion, I think you’d do this brew some good to let it sit another six months or so, then the malt bill will likely truly begin to shine. Either way, pick up a bottle and settle in for a tasty treat.

Victory are knocking it out of the park this year!

Victory Old Horizontal Barleywine Style Ale, 93 points. Price: $7.99 US for one 22 oz. bomber size bottle.

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Beer Review 0583: AleSmith Old Numbskull Barleywine

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AleSmith Brewing Company is located in San Diego, California, and was founded by Peter Zien in 1995. AleSmith has deep roots in the homebrewing community; Mr. Zien was a home homebrewer himself who dreamed of wanting to own a brewery. Well, that dream came true; Zien is also San Diego County’s only BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) “Grand Master” beer judge. BJCP sanctions homebrewing competitions.

To continue the homebrew theme, the other major half of AleSmith, Tod Fitzsimmons, was a former president of the homebrew club QUAFF. He joined the company as a brewer in 1996.

Very recently, AleSmith earned the #1 slot on the website RateBeer’s ‘Top Brewer in the World’ list. (Of note: I’ve only ever reviewed one other AleSmith beer because they are not distributed here in North Carolina; it was Speedway Stout, and I awarded it a perfect 100 points!)

Old Numbskull is a west-coast style Barleywine that is produced year-round. The name gives a nod to English tradition as Barleywines typically started with “Old” in the beer name. Coming in at 11% ABV (alcohol by volume), this is a fresh bottle produced in November 2013.

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The pour delivered a very nice looking beer, capped by a large, off-white, creamy head that lingered. The beer was a dull amber-brown out of light; held in light, it became red with lighter orange highlights toward the bottom of the glass. The body was hazy yet still remained translucent, and there were no particles or sediment. Lacing was perfect, leaving behind thick sheets of solid foam as I sipped. Picture perfect for the style.

On the nose, this is much more Imperial IPA than Barleywine — until it begins to warm. Pungent and fresh hops immediately greet you, with impressive waves of resinous pine, grapefruit, orange, mild tropical fruits, and lime. The malt backing is meek at first, only giving off hints of caramel and toffee, but as it warms, it opens to expose deeper, bready notes with delicate layers of chocolate and a hint of dark fruit.

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The taste is very much the same, with untamed notes of sticky, fresh hops; big orange peel, grapefruit, sweet tropical fruits and a wallop of dank pine. This couples with a stiff note of 11% alcohol to be unpleasant and medicinal at first; when allowed to warm, more of the malt backing starts to account for itself. There’s a thin layer of caramel and growing dark fruits, with bread crust, and it helps soak up some of the alcohol. By the middle of the glass, Old Numbskull turns into an enjoyable drink that showcases the other, hoppy, west-coast side of Barleywine. This beer is full-bodied, with a medium, foamy mouthfeel. The finish edges up the dark fruits a bit, but it needs more time to be greater defined.

If you’ve got a fresh bottle of this beer and you want to open it (which I think you should), allow it to warm for about 25 minutes after you pour it — I think you’ll avoid the stiff alcohol astringency. Don’t get me wrong — the 11% never disappears, and you surely do feel it, but this becomes a much better brew as it warms. Now, as for aging…I think if you check in around 6-8 months, you will be greatly rewarded with a classic beer.

AleSmith Old Numbskull Barleywine, 93 points. Price: $10.99 US for one 750 ml. bottle.

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Redux Review 0016: Sierra Nevada Barrel Aged Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale (2013)

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This is a redux review that I’ve been looking forward to for an entire year.

Last year around this time, I reviewed Sierra Nevada’s Barrel Aged Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale, and gave it 97 points. It went on to become #3 on my Top 25 Beers of 2013 list. It was a classic beer featuring what is best about barrel aged beer: all the coconut, vanilla, and spicy alcohol that you could want coupled with a seriously great base beer, Bigfoot Barleywine, which I have rated 96 points on its own. No slouching here.

A little about Barrel Aged Bigfoot: Matured in whisky barrels, this was a long anticipated beer that was supposed to be released in 2012, but was delayed. 2013 marked the 30th anniversary of normal, everyday Bigfoot, so it was time to bring this particular barreled creature out of hiding. Aged in whisky casks for two years, Sierra says the hops have faded and the addition of wood aging brings forth vanilla, coconut, and raisins. The barrel version sees a hefty increase in ABV (alcohol by volume); regular Bigfoot is 9.6%; the barrel aged is a massive 12.2%. The release was limited, with some states only getting a few cases, and presentation is 750 ml bottles, corked and caged. This beer is actually a blend, as the brewery decided to use multiple types of barrels for aging, which included: bourbon barrels, Tennessee whisky, rye whisky, and single-malt Scotch.

Here’s exactly what I thought in my first review:

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Appearance: 14 of 15 points
Aroma: 15 of 15 points
Flavor and Palate: 34 of 35 points
Drinkability and Overall Experience: 34 of 35 points

Final Score: 97, or classic on my rating scale.

So, what has one more year done to this beer, which was already technically two years old when I first sampled it? I find Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot line of brews to actually be one of the few beers that does indeed age very, very well. Only one way to find out; let’s pop that cork!

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Pouring stirred up a very small, soapy, off-white head that diminished rapidly. The beer was a amber-red color, and was quite murky looking; in bright light, it threw off orange highlights and was so cloudy, it was opaque. Although clouded, there weren’t any visible particles or sediment; I did notice a ring of yeast dregs at the bottom of the bottle. Lacing was sparse, only leaving a dot of foam here and there.

The nose is still as spectacular as it was at one year ago — we’ve got heavy notes of bourbon, woodsy oak, vanilla, coconut, and plenty of alcohol. But there is a noticeable oxidation present; that doesn’t deter tons of dark fruit, especially prune, raisin, and plum; and there’s lots of sweetness with burnt sugar and caramel. And although Sierra Nevada says the hops have long faded, there is a bit of sharp grapefruit still in the mix.

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Like the nose, the flavors are still all here, just a bit faded. Burnt sugar and plenty of thick caramel kick the taste off, then we’ve got bready notes mixed with vanilla bean, prune, raisin, and coconut. It hangs out here, fairly sweet, until the swallow when the more astringent notes of the barrel begin to show; a big blast of bourbon and oak show up, but they’re a touch faded and hot with significant alcohol. The finish presents a heavy bitterness, lots of sharp, woodsy whiskey, and minor notes of dark fruit and toasted coconut. Barrel Aged Bigfoot his full-bodied, with a medium, creamy mouthfeel.

Yep, this is still a classic beer, but it’s went a touch downhill. Oxidation seems to have faded the barrel flavors, but it hasn’t worked on the alcohol at all; it’s still really strong, which seems to be the exact opposite of what you want when you age a beer. But it’s still super tasty, and as it warms, it gets even better. If you find a bottle, I highly advocate you pick it up.

In redux:

Appearance: 14 of 15 points
Aroma: 15 of 15 points
Flavor and Palate: 33 of 35 points
Drinkability and Overall Experience: 33 of 35 points

Sierra Nevada Barrel Aged Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale (2013), 95 points. Price: $15.99 US for one 750 ml. corked & caged bottle.

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Beer Review 0576: Dieu du Ciel! Solstice d’hiver Barleywine

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Dieu du Ciel! is a Canadian brewery, based in Saint-Jérôme, Quebec. They have a production facility there, and also run a brewpub in downtown Montreal. Open since 1998, the calling card of the brewery seems to be exploration in many different styles with a nod toward innovation and character.

Dieu du Ciel! have an impressive catalog of beers, and you should check out their website for a complete list. Normally, my town doesn’t see distribution of Dieu du Ciel!, but today’s beer, Solstice d’hiver, recently appeared on shelves in a few bottle shops.

Solstice d’hiver (Winter Solstice) is a Barleywine brewed near the end of summer. The brewery lets the beer age for a few months to balance out before shipping in late December, making it a winter seasonal. Based on the description Dieu du Ciel! give, this seems to be an American-style Barleywine, as they note significant hops — but, then they dose in English ale yeast. The beer comes in at 10.2% ABV (alcohol by volume) and was first produced at the Montreal brewpub in December of 1998.

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The pour looked fairly typical as Barleywines go — this one produced a small, soapy, fast diminishing eggshell white head. The beer was a rusty amber color, but when held to light turned a nice ruby red; you’ll also notice a light amount of particles and sediment floating about in the bright light. The body is cloudy, with the bottle saying the brew is unfiltered. Lacing was good, leaving behind thin patches of suds.

On the nose, there’s very sweet caramel malt mixed with faded grapefruit and pine. The malt bill is complex and fairly subtle, issuing up some sweet breads, toffee, burnt sugar, and molasses. As it warms, dark/dried fruit notes begin to emerge, especially cherry and prune.

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The taste starts good things cracking immediately, with a blanket layer of burnt sugary caramel, and a dash of pine and grapefruit for a little balance. This continues to the middle, which brings about some soft bready notes coupled with cherries; the finish kicks you with a full hit of the 10.2% ABV, but there are flavors of grape, dried fruit, and pine underneath all that bitterness. Coupled with the alcohol, the heavy bitterness makes this one a touch medicinal and hard to finish. Solstice d’hiver is full-bodied, with a medium, foamy mouthfeel.

Remember how I said this beer was aged a few months before release? Well, you can tell — and in my opinion, it’s kind of for the worse. I love hoppy Barleywines, but they are at peak performance when fresh. I also like malty Barleywines, but they are at peak when the hops are at a minimum, or at least in a very minor, supporting role. This beer is right in the middle, and it just doesn’t seem like everything has melded together as it should. Yet. I’d be interested to revisit in a few months, but in this current state, I’m done after just a few ounces.

Dieu du Ciel! Solstice d’hiver Barleywine, 84 points. Price: $2.99 US for one 11.5 oz. bottle.

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