Bigfoot expedition

Unearthing a 28-year-old bottle of Sierra Nevada’s mythical barleywine

Side by side: Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot barleywine from 1987 (left) as compared with the 2015 vintage.

Side by side: Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot barleywine from 1987 (left) as compared with the 2015 vintage.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

My mom sent me a text a few months ago that read: “At a yard sale, we got a bottle of 1987 Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale for 2 bucks!”

If you’re a beer geek like I am, right now you’re probably reacting with some of the same choice curses that I excitedly blurted upon first reading that most unexpected message. Not only is Bigfoot a favorite among craft-beer lovers, but it’s also one of the most commonly collected beers for cellaring. So, even though chances for the contents of a 28-year-old bottle of beer with unknown provenance surviving with any of its goodness intact were probably slim, a Bigfoot so rare is still a whale of a find.

Best of all, my folks were kind enough to give me the bottle, and I reached out to my beer-dude inner circle to plan a tasting/unveiling. Finally, last Sunday (May 17), we cracked open the 12-ounce time capsule.

Barleywine ale is so named because its higher level of alcohol (in the 10 percent ABV range) approaches that of wine (12 percent to 14 percent ABV). It gets that extra alcohol by upping the malted barley levels to ridiculous proportions in order to extract huge amounts of fermentable sugars, and boiling the wort for much longer. When I called Steve Dresler, Sierra Nevada’s longtime brewmaster, to tell him about my Bigfoot find and ask him about the beer that he’s been involved with since joining the brewery in 1983 (“I drank one my first day on the job,” he quipped), he said the grain bill for Bigfoot is about 60 percent bigger than that of the brewery’s flagship Pale Ale.

“It’s a very time-consuming beer,” he said, adding that the 2 1/2 hours our so that it takes to boil all that grain contributes greatly to the finished product. “That long simmer with those caramel malts in there … It’s kind of like caramelizing sugar when you’re making candy.”

Of course, the American-style barleywine goes crazy with hops as well, and a new bottle of Bigfoot boasts a whopping IBU (International Bittering Units) measurement of 90. Add that flavor punch to the strong malt backbone, with its caramelized/fruity sweetness and touch of alcohol warmth, and you get a huge, complex-tasting beer.

But what many folks get most excited about with Bigfoot is what happens to those flavors over time. While most styles of beer are best enjoyed fresh (hop flavors, especially, fade rapidly as oxidation creeps in), Bigfoot matures with age. We had both a 2015 and 2014 on the table Sunday, and the two beers were markedly different. Just one year of aging had diminished the initial citrus hop bite and aroma significantly, and the beginnings of a fuller, fudgy body were starting to form, with a faint sherry and dried fruit richness rising up.

We also sampled a big bottle of this year’s barrel-aged Bigfoot, and its year spent in an oak whiskey cask had expanded on those 2014 complexities to include hints of smoked whiskey plus the wonderful coconut and vanilla notes that the label promises.

“I really like the flavor profile at, like, five years,” said Dresler when asked if there was a sweet spot for Bigfoot aging. “If you go between five and 10, what you end up with is diminished returns. Three to five years, the beer is absolutely delicious.”

Back in 1987, Sierra Nevada was just breaking ground on the brewery’s current 20th Street location, meaning the bottle we were about to taste—with its sky-blue twist-off cap and the year printed on an oversized footprint on top—had been brewed in the old Gilman Way warehouse.

I slowly pried off the slightly worn cap and heard the faintest hiss of carbonation. Then the smell of prunes came on strong enough to be detected from across the table. Poured into a tasting glass side-by-side with the 2015 Bigfoot, the 1987 was dramatically darker—an opaque dark brown vs. a clear reddish brown. Naturally, there was no real carbonation and no head to the ’87.

And the taste? Pretty good, actually. There were many of the sought-after flavor notes for an aged Bigfoot: raisins, dark chocolate and that intense caramelized sweetness that brings to mind sherry or port or even bourbon. We all agreed, however, that it was way too sweet for anything but sipping in very small portions, and there wasn’t much left to the body. But it was very gratifying to experience what so many years in the bottle had done to a beer for which time is often a critical ingredient.

Curious? Keep an eye on A1987 Bigfoot recently sold there for only $75!