Friday, December 9, 2011

A Flight of Fine Barleywines

This week's tasting at The Hoppy Brewer featured a flight of four barleywines. Two were from Salt Lake City's Uinta Brewing Company, a brewery which is making something of a push into the Pacific Northwest—and who are brewing some really fine beers. I first encountered Uinta when I picked up a bottle of their "Dubhe" imperial black IPA at The Beermongers. It was delicious, a really nice balance of dark malts and sharp hops. Then I chanced on a Uinta tasting at Belmont Station, and got a chance to try several more of their brews, including a couple from their "Crooked Line." Their IPA, "Hop Notch," showed up in the local supermarket a few weeks after that. And pretty quickly this brewery I hadn't heard of in September has become a brand for which I have fairly high expectations. 

Uinta's "Anniversary" barleywine certainly didn't disappoint in terms of taste, but it is a fairly uncharacteristic barleywine. It's characteristically big, at 10.4% ABV, but it's a hops-forward strong ale, with lots of citrus and hop bitterness mixed in with the more expected dark fruit and chocolate notes. The malt base is solid, but darker than you might expect from a barleywine, with very little of the caramel that is so frequently present. It's delicious, but it was just a bit of an odd-beer-out in the flight.

Uinta's "Crooked Line" entry, "Cockeyed Cooper," is a bourbon-barrel-aged, 11.1% barleywine of a much more traditional sort. The nose is sweet, with a bit of the barrel apparent. The hops bitterness is certainly present in this brew as well, but it's well balanced with the other elements: wood, bourbon, citrus, caramel and booze. Vanilla notes build as you drink. The malts are solid, but they have to be. There's quite a bit going on here, but it's both very drinkable and very recognizable as a barleywine. 

Alesmith's "Old Numbskull" (11% ABV, 107 IBU) was probably the most traditional barleywine I tried tonight. The nose is sweet, with the emphasis on caramel and booze. The taste hits you in waves: malt, then bitter hops, then alcohol burn. The booze is not masked here. The caramel is equally aggressive. And the combination of elements is delightful. It takes a while for the fruit notes to surface, but those subtleties do come as you drink. There are beers that make you smile, and this is one of them. 

Silver Moon's "Bourbon Barrel Barleywine" has been on tap for a few days, and I had tasted it before tonight's tasting. I still want to sit down with a full glass and really spend some time with it. It's a really intriguing brew. The nose is hard to pin down, although there's some of the 11.5% ABV in there, and also some of the Elijah Craig bourbon barrels in which it was aged for 7 months. But mostly there's a kind of lightness or freshness that I would be hard put to put a name on. The taste starts out with a huge amount of vanilla, and then the bourbon highlights. Hop bitterness lingers a bit on the tongue, and there is a moment when it's mostly chocolate, and then malty roast and bourbon. It's a big, complex group of flavors, and as you get used to it, it just gets more complex, as all the conventional barleywine flavor, caramel in particular, comes through. 

This week's flight was delicious, but didn't include the best barleywine I've had this so far season. That honor goes to Boulder Beer's "Killer Penguin." It's 10% ABV and pours a fairly deep red. It's another of those surprisingly hoppy barleywines, with a nose that's all floral and fruit, somewhere between citrus and stone fruit, and a taste that starts with those same hop characteristics forward. But it settles into the plummy sort of barleywine flavor, without those other notes ever quite receding.

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