Sunday, January 20, 2013

Drinking With Bigfoot

A Vertical Tasting of Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot Barleywine

I love beer tastings. I go to beer festivals at just about every opportunity I have; I really enjoy learning about the wide varieties of different beers and being introduced to new breweries or new beers with which I was previously unfamiliar.

But something I have only rarely gotten to experience is the Beer Vertical tasting. As opposed to a horizontal tasting – in which one tastes several different several different beers in the same style – in a vertical tasting, one tastes the same beer (or wine, or scotch, or whatever) from different years or vintages. This demonstrates how the beer ages over time, and provides valuable information: how long is ideal to age this particular beer? Does this beer really get that much better with age?

The first time I was introduced to the wonders of an aged beer was while I was in Amsterdam a few years back. I was at what became my favorite bar in the city, Arendsnest. It's a bar that features at least one (but most often several) beer from every brewery in Holland. I was sitting at a table in the back flipping through their bottle list when I came across a nine year old La Trappe Quadruple. The price was surprisingly affordable, so I purchased it on a whim.

Though a perfectly nice beer, La Trappe has never been among my favorite of the Trappist beers. Yet this aged Quad was sublime. The richness and complexity of the flavors – dark caramelized sugars, rich fruitcake, prunes, cherries, plums, raisins – without a hint of booziness absolutely blew me away. Though I had heard that Quads in particular aged well, it wasn't until that beer that I witnessed the wonders of it firsthand. 

That day changed my life as a beer collector, and it was the day I began my beer cellar.

Even still, my cellar is a tad erratic. I buy what looks interesting, but I tend to buy only one or two bottles at a time, and if I already have a particular beer in my cellar, I'm likely not going to buy another. As a consequence, though I've got a great collection of aged beers, a vertical is pretty much out of the question.

So when my friend Mike called me up and expressed interest in reaching into his cellar to do a Sierra Nevada Bigfoot vertical, I jumped at the opportunity.

Bigfoot is an American-style Barleywine. High in alcohol (9+%), rich and sweet, but with loads of hops, Sierra Nevada's been brewing it every year since 1983. Mike has been buying and cellaring them since 2009 and had just picked up the 2013, so we had a great five bottle lineup on our hands.

 American Barleywines age very differently (though not better or worse) than their English cousins, mainly due to the fact that there is such a higher hop content in the American versions. Consequently, because hop flavor diminishes over time, the beer – as we were about to find out – really changes personality as the years go by.

We started with the oldest and went to the newest. The 2009 vintage drank more like a fortified wine than a beer.  A big nose with brandy-soaked dried fruit (predominantly prunes and raisins), there was a distinct nuttiness to the flavor, reminding us both of Sherry and walnut shells, with a faint bit of coffee grounds mixed in the background. The beer was super smooth with a crazy-long finish, becoming a little bitter in the end; some of those hops were still hanging on!

The 2010 was a bit different, with much more maple coming through in the nose, though the brandy-soaked fruit was still, albiet less, present. Unlike the 2009 vintage, 2010 had a little more upfront bitterness with flavors of grapefruit zest and hop cones. For as smooth as 2009 was in the mouth, 2010 was even smoother, coating the tongue in a velvety sweetness. 

2011 struck us both with its effervescence; highly carbonated, it was the only beer with an actively visible carbonation. It had a much brighter nose than the previous two, and much more of a piney hop flavor. Significantly less sweet than the earlier two versions, there were hints of brown sugar, though the hop flavor was still pretty predominant. 

But when we tasted 2012, we realized that as predominant as the hops were in 2011, they had significantly faded. The 2012 vintage socked you right away with an immediate hop bitterness, though this balanced really nicely with a white-sugary sweetness. Neither of us really detected any of the fruitiness or dark sugar qualities present in the older vintages. 

Last we tasted the 2013 which really took us by surprise: it really couldn't have been any more different. Lots of dry hopped perfume aromas were flying out of the glass, and the mouth had a distinct floral, perfumey lavender flavor with a pine resin background. It is shocking to think how this beer will mature over time.

My favorite? I was partial to the 2009 with the 2010 being a close second, though I would happily drink any one of them again! I'd love to hear your favorite vintages or tasting notes on any of them; feel free to contribute in the comments below.

Mike still has several bottles of each vintage left. We'll try the next Bigfoot Vertical in another ten years. 'Till then...



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