A vertical tasting of Sierra Nevada Brewery’s barley wines
Chico, CA 95928
The world went on without them. Buried in their dark tomb, seasons were smothered, night and day became one, and time crawled sluggishly through the ages. They endured their captivity while Reagan, Bush, Clinton and another Bush obliviously came and went. For these prisoners, all hope surely seemed lost. But one day this winter, three gained their freedom.
And then we drank them.
With scientific reverence and attention, we poured the specimens into a line of snifters and embarked on a vertical tasting, sampling several vintages of the same beer in one sitting. The object of our attention: the illustrious Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale from Sierra Nevada, acquired from a friend at the brewery, who evidently has more fine beer on his hands than he knows what to do with.
To start, we sampled the 2009 to provide some baseline data. This beer, rich, brown and fresh from the bottling line, was youthful and vibrant. Bigfoot is famed for its smashing hops profile. A hugely bitter taste and aromas of grapefruit, guava and other tropical fruits almost make it a double IPA, and for these reasons Bigfoot is the barley wine that many people either love or hate. The alpha acids burn the tongue while a robust malty body—the signature of a barley wine—jockeys for space on the palate.
To test what effect a little time in the slammer had on the barley wine, we turned to the 2006. Marvelous things had transpired. The aromas of the hops had withered and gone, though a dull mouthy bitterness remained, and that sprightly malt character so subdued in the fresh beer had matured and grown. The citrus and tropical components were replaced by toffee, bitter chocolate, some sharp maple-pine notes and fudge.
The 2003 was even chewier. Thick, sticky and complex, a note of dried fruits—maybe prunes—had seeped through the dark layers. The citrus was all gone, swept away by a broad wall of dark sweetness and malt.
The 2000: This old fellow was the time-wizened monarch of them all. The beer had spent nine years in the cellar, sleeping through eight years of Republican rule and awakening to a world ready for revolution—and in a sense, perhaps, this specimen was the change so many of us were waiting for. It bore almost no similarity to its freshly made counterpart. All of Bigfoot’s notorious hops: gone. All its zesty aromas: gone. All its sparkling citrus flavors: gone. Instead, the old barley wine bore a sluggish, brawny body and an intriguing tartness of smell and flavor, much like that which some beers gain through time spent in a bourbon barrel.
The 2000 Bigfoot carried a noble gentlemanly air about it, and we could only wonder how the beer might taste at 12, 15 or 20 years of age.
Brian Yaeger knows. The seasoned beer taster and author of Red, White and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey recently visited Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. on official business and tasted a relic from the cellar: a 1987 Bigfoot.
“Tasting a 22-year-old bottle of Bigfoot isn’t anything like drinking an ’09,” Yaeger noted. “Gone are the bold hops. It had turned into a remarkably smooth beer with big raisin and date flavors.”
Sierra Nevada brewer Steve Dresler, who has tasted Bigfoot as old as 17 years (but prefers it at 3), speculates that, beyond a certain point, the barley wine no longer improves, worsens or changes.
“Eventually, the beer levels off and hits a plateau.”
Most old beers in the world are locked up in private basements or brewery cellars, and tasting them may require aging them ourselves. Those who do so should keep the beer in the dark at 60 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler and maintain a stable ambient temperature.
Fifteen years may seem a long time to wait, but just think: We’ll arrive in our twilight years one way or another, so why not pack along some vintage Bigfoot to drink when we get there?