Mad River Brewing Co. John Barleycorn Barleywine

I can’t quite solve the barleywine puzzle. It’s clear that a part of me wants to like barleywines. I try them occasionally when out, and I sometimes pick up different bottles to sample at home. But I do this despite being consistently, and usually gravely, disappointed. Extremely rare is the bottle of barleywine that makes me do anything more than cringe. I blame this on two elements:

  1. The difficulty of brewing a beer that is drinkable and flavorful while being 8% and greater in alcohol, and most often above 10%.
  2. The willingness of American brewers to push their beers to extremes, and this being a style that is already at the extreme.

When you combine #2 with #1, you have a beer that is tremendously hard for American brewers to brew with great rates of success. You have a style which stands at the extremes, leaving brewers a very fine line between success and failure. You also have a style which can be very volatile once in bottle or keg, and which can respond quite badly to ill treatment at the hands of distributors or shop owners.

All of which adds up to a lot of disappointing glasses of barleywine. But – and this is a big but – when you do get that rare glass of barleywine that really hits the nail on the head, what you’ve got is a truly great glass of beer. And this is what keeps me coming back to the style, despite many more truly disappointing glasses relative to great ones.

All that being said, it’s also the case that my tastes in barleywines limits the playing field quite a bit. I prefer barleywines that belie their alcohol percentage – no thick, rich, overly alcohol sweet beers please. I am also looking for a notable hoppiness both in the nose and the palate, but which is firmly integrated with the other elements in the beer. In contrast to my taste in IPAs where a beer having no balance is no problem, a barleywine has to have balance in order to be drinkable. As a result, I tend to not get much mileage out of English-style barleywines, which tend to favor malt-sweetness over other elements, and lean towards West coast interpretations of the style, which aren’t afraid of letting the hops play a role in the beer (that being said, English brewers are much more adept at producing a restrained, very drinkable barleywine).

Unfortunately, there are only a few barleywines that I’ve had and have really enjoyed, and my favorite among these has been Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine. Bigfoot has a strong, West coast hoppiness to the nose, and is particularly bitter on the palate. Yet, the palate has well-integrated malt elements that smooth out the hop bitterness, and give the beer a solid structure that makes it enjoyably drinkable. When the beer first comes out (it’s a seasonal from Sierra Nevada) the hops are very prominent, and they mellow gradually given time. I recently opened a bottle of last year’s vintage and found it to be less hoppy than I remembered, but still not shy. In fact, I’ve got a couple of bottles from each of the past 3 vintages, and am looking forward to a comparative tasting later this Winter when the new batch comes out.

So with Sierra Nevada as the bar that I’ve set for top-shelf barleywines, it was with a real sense of anticipation that I opened the Mad River Brewing Co. John Barleycorn Barleywine (this is also a seasonal, released each November). I’d found their Steelhead Double IPA to be a really enjoyable beer, and so I was mixed with equal parts good anticipation (man, this could be a good barleywine!) and bad anticipation (man, it’ll be disappointing if their barleywine is no good either!). But, intrepid liqui-gastronome* that I am, I forged ahead…

Some specs on the beer:

  • Starting gravity: 1.098
  • Final gravity: 1.020
  • ABV: 9.5%
  • IBU: 96
  • They once brewed it with spices, but it appears they last did this in 1998

The first thing that I took notice of was the color, a dark reddish brown, with amber highlights, and nearly opaque, partially on account of the sediment that contributed a haze to the beer. Mad River doesn’t filter their beers, a practice which I am in favor of. The nose was a heady mix of citrus and pine hops, raspberries, brown sugar, bourbon, and vanilla, all in equal parts with no one element taking center stage. The palate has loads of brown sugar, caramel, vanilla, and malt, accentuated by a lightly-textured mouthfeel that belies the 9.5%. There is a distinct undercurrent of resiny hop bitterness that plays an accompanying role to the other flavors on the palate. On the finish, the hop bitterness strikes first, gradually giving way to a brown sugar sweetness that slowly fades out.

On the whole, I’m really enjoying this beer. There are enough hops to get my attention, and the sweet flavors are unlike most other barleywines that I’ve had. Instead of being a viscous, malty sweetness commonly associated with high-alcohol beers, the brown sugar and vanilla flavors are most prominent here, which is very good, and allows the many different flavors in the beer to meld together nicely.

So this will join the limited ranks of barleywines that I’d enjoy trying again. I still haven’t tried Stone Brewing’s Old Guardian and Rogue’s Old Crustacean both of which may fall into the range of barleywines that I enjoy best, so stay tuned. Perhaps I’ll be adding another one or two to the list eventually.

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    Saturday, January 24th, 2009 Beer

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