To Buy or Not to Buy?
1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average
3.5 = good (many better beers out there; won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best
A Note on the Style: American Barleywine
(This style note is essentially the same as the one from my post “Beer Roundup #7: Three Midwest English Barleywines.”)
American breweries produce both types of barleywine, the malty “English” style and the hoppy “American” style. As I’m more of a malt guy, I prefer the sweeter English style. The hoppy American style comes with hop bitterness to rival even the most mouth-puckering IPA. All barleywines have a stiff malt backbone and generous sweetness, but the hop-forward American-style is often so bitter as to be indistinguishable from a high-alcohol double IPA. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are double IPA’s; I love me a double IPA when it’s got intense sweetness to offset the high IBU, like Bell’s Hopslam, Dogfish Head 120 Minute, or Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree. Same with American barleywines: as long as it’s both bitter and sweet, it’s got my attention.
Bigfoot, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Rating: 4.39 / 5
12 oz. bottle (4-pk), 10.2% abv, 73 IBU.
A glinting copper pour into a tulip glass, with an inch of off-white fluffy head that plasters lace on the glass.
The syrupy viscous feel in the mouth is too wonderful not to mention first. The first sip comes with a short-lived sugar sweetness. Then bitter grapefruit renders the sugar a memory. The citrus morphs to tarry pine. Whoa, this brew is too bitter. I immediately want to throw this in the cellar to teach it some manners. That said, there is a secondary sweetness that calls out from the bitter abyss, alluding to a caramel malt sweetness that’s promised with a year or two of cellar aging. But the spicy alcohol heat teams up with the bitter hops to silence such rumors.
Stepping back to take in the aroma, a pungent honey and ripe melon seem to confirm the ghost of the sweetness. As the glass warms, the bloated bitterness deflates a bit, and a moist, grainy bread emerges, allowing that original simple syrup sugar to creep back into the room.
Rough-edged and impressively huge, like Greenflash Barleywine, this brew lacks the balance and polish of my favorite American barley wines: Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale and Alaskan Barley Wine.
Beer Line, Lakefront Brewery
12-oz. bottle (4-pk), 12.5% abv, 52 IBU.
Sticky, two-finger creamy head and lacing. Rouge-brown amber fluid.
My least favorite beer aroma hits the nose first: leather. Milky rice pudding and wonder bread make up the malt bill. Brown sugar and vanilla, plus a mild booziness. Very little hop bitterness in the aroma.
In the mouth the leather greets the palate, first, unfortunately. There’s a waterlogged driftwood that seems wedded to a chocolate-toffee sweetness and a nice estery burn. Finishes with a loamy top-soil earthiness and a floral bitterness.
Medium- to full-bodied. Creamy and slick, a sticky, bitter finish.
This afternoon I was overly impulsive, buying two 4-packs of this brew. Perhaps my judgment was clouded by the joyous memory of two recent Midwest barleywine discoveries: 1) just last month I cellared three four-packs of the enviable Stevens Point Whole Hog Barleywine (Wisconsin); and, 2) last month I was floored by Schell’s Stag Series BW (Minnesota), on tap at Mason Lounge. Those two are a cut above this Beer Line barleywine (Wisconsin). I don’t think I’ll be buying anymore of this one. (Going by my ratings system, 4.0 is the cutoff point for purchasing any beer again.
Still, this is a fairly delicious barleywine, more English-style than American. I’ll throw the remaining seven bottles in the cellar. Maybe a year might do good things, especially with the 12.5% ABV.
Old Horizontal, Victory Brewing Company
Rating: 4.41 / 5
22-oz. bottle, 11% abv,  IBU (estim.)
A bomber poured into a tulip glass creates a seriously handsome, ruddy copper glass of beer. It’s topped by a finger of fluffy off-white head that stays and stays, with sticky lacing.
Hoppy aroma, though quietly so. An indeterminate spiciness. Sweet grain. The alcohol is present.
Flavor in the mouth opens with sweet bread and red wine, plus a spicy alcohol. Becomes instantly bitter from the citrusy hops, which dominate through the middle palate and onward through the finish. The sweetness rings as an echo on the backend, though sweetness here is refracted by the intense, white-grapefruit bitterness.
A medium- to full-bodied, luxurious mouthfeel, with a lively carbonation.
Classic American barley wine, very much like Bigfoot, though even bigger (except for the aroma). Intensely hoppy and spicy. The one drawback might be the near eclipse of malt sweetness by the tannic wine and citric bitterness. Nothing a bit of cellaring won’t cure.