SUNDAY SIPS: 5 Big, Beastly Barleywines

Barleywines are an older style of beer. Big, boozy, and perfect for setting aside in the cupboard for a few years, these are beers meant to be sipped (preferably with a nice cigar). These are five worth checking out.

Lagunitas Olde Gnarleywine

The barleywine, especially the American variation, is a big, bad style of beer known for its refusal to compromise. Don’t believe me? Try a sip of Gnarleywine by Lagunitas. The aroma is like a rich spiced pudding. The taste is brimming with rich toffee, dark fruits, cinnamon and brown sugar, and molasses – but this is an American style barleywine, which means all those rich malts are countered with plenty of bitter hops. And unlike most barleywines, this one actually masks the burn of the booze pretty well (it’s 10.6 percent ABV), making it dangerously easy to drink. A session beer this is not.

Sierra Nevada Bigfoot

You can’t have a discussion about barleywines without bringing up Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, one of the most groundbreaking beers in American craft beer history. It all but defines the American style of barleywine, and even in today’s world of aggressive beers it stands out for its robust, no-holds-barred character.  This beer has been around since 1983 but tastes as vital today as it did then. Malts like caramel-dipped leather and stone fruits fight a hopeless war against brisk, piney hops. Though “only” 9.6 percent ABV, a veritable lightweight by today’s standards, it still provides plenty of the warming alcohol you expect from this style of beer. Bigfoot is a modern classic by any measure.

DuClaw Devil’s Due

American craft beer brewers don’t really know the meaning of the word “rules,” which is how you get a beer like Devil’s Due, a barrel-aged blend of an imperial stout and a barleywine. It’s sold as a stout, but it has barleywine parentage, too, so fans of the style should sit up and take notice. Strong bourbon with hints of licorice, oak and espresso make themselves known, just as you’d expect from an imperial stout, but pay closer attention and you’ll notice brown sugar, burnt dark fruits, and sweet caramel coming to the fore, just like you would a barleywine. Throw in a hot, boozy finish and you’d be forgiven for thinking maybe this isn’t an imperial stout after all.

Firestone Walker Sucaba

The barleywine style of beer is already big and complex, a delicious but uncompromising style that is unafraid to intimidate you – so let the folks at Firestone Walker, masters of barrel-aged brews, get their hands on one and you’ve got yourself a monster of a brew. Sucaba is a gargantuan barleywine ale that is aged for a year in spent bourbon barrels.  Luscious notes of roasted coconut, vanilla, sweet chocolate and charred figs compete with oak, bourbon and alcohol heat to make for an imposing beverage you’ve got to sip to appreciate. And you DO have to sip this one, because its obscene 13 percent ABV will knock you on your rear if you don’t. But this beer is so good, you owe yourself a trip to hunt it down.

Weyerbacher Insanity

When Easton, PA brewers Weyerbacher made Blithering Idiot, their take on a classic barleywine style ale, it was everything you’d expect from an English-leaning take on the style: rich, nutty, sweet, and pleasantly warming. Then they decided to age some in spent bourbon barrels, and suddenly that already imposing beer (it’s 11.1 percent ABV) became even more imposing (and delicious – let’s not forget delicious). Huge notes of vanilla, oak, and hints of bourbon became part of an already complex mix. Just enough bittering hops were used to balance the beer, but that made it no less a monster.

1 Comment

  1. Robbie PattersonRobbie Patterson

    Sierra Nevada’s pale ale is in my all time top 10

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