I don’t know squat about beer – or most alcohol, actually – and so have enlisted a true beer snob to educate me on the ways of barley. Or wheat. Or something. See? I don’t know anything! In any case, please welcome the newest addition to the Feisty Foodie, my beer blogger and buddy, BS! who will be writing Friday installments… The Beer Boor.
Sierra Nevada 2010 Bigfoot Barleywine
For my inaugural beer blogging entry, I decided on a classic seasonal beer from Chico, California-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Sierra’s been brewing for 30 years, churning out memorably good beer for far longer than I’ve been able to enjoy them. The brewery has earned lots of shelf space in my apartment as a result. Bigfoot, their “barleywine-style ale,” is considered the benchmark of the American Barleywine style. It’s been brewed for 25 years, and is now released around the first week of February.
Style NotesIn a nutshell, barleywines fall into two categories: English style and American style. Both showcase a full, heavy malt profile, not necessarily sweet but often rather caramelly. That’s where the two diverge, however. The American Barleywine style also features an obvious hop aroma and flavor, typically citrusy or piney, associated with the Pacific Northwest hop crops – many, if not most, of the great American barleywines are brewed on the West Coast. As well, the massive hop charge in the beer makes it rather bitter, so it’s really not a style for the drinker new to craft beer. English-style barleywine, on the other hand, tends to focus much more on the malt profile, which can be more fruity, especially dark fruits like plums and figs.
Barleywines are commonly “cellared”, or left in a cool, dark place, for years in order to let the flavors develop and meld together in different, interesting ways. While most beer styles are substantially better to drink as fresh from the source as possible, bigger, more alcoholic beers like barleywines often benefit from a little age, especially if they’re bottle-conditioned. Bottle-conditioned beer leaves the fermenting yeast in suspension rather than filtering it out, and as that live yeast eats more of the sugars in the beer, the flavor profile can change profoundly. In addition, the hop contribution to the aroma and bitterness drops dramatically over time, often disappearing completely, leaving that malt backbone (and alcohol) to carry the show. For these reasons, plus its obvious popularity, Bigfoot is probably the most-cellared beer.
That’s enough background. Time to drink!
Bigfoot pours a clear copper, leaving a finger of dense ivory head atop which quickly fades to a thin skim of foam in my glass. (Note that while I used a snifter-shaped glass, as it will concentrate aromas somewhat, you really shouldn’t worry too much about the shape of your glass. Always drink your beer from a clean glass, and you’ll be fine.) Aromas of citrus rind coupled with the prickliness of the alcohol dominate in the nose, while the slight sweetness of the malt, close to a cookie dough aroma, brings up the rear. Bigfoot is actually fairly low in alcohol among American barleywines these days, but at 9.6% alcohol by volume, it’s still about twice as strong as your average non-light industrial lager such as Budweiser or Stella Artois.
Grapefruit flavor and bitterness dominate the hop profile for this beer. As with any good barleywine, this is tempered here with a solid malt backbone, not too sweet or cloying, just kind of there to provide a full mouthfeel and carry the bitterness along without careening into mouth-puckering astringency. Naturally, the alcohol presents itself fairly strongly, as a peppery burn present in every sip. The beer is thick on the tongue, both because of the malt profile and the relative lack of carbonation compared to most styles of beer. Bigfoot finishes (surprise!) citrusy-bitter and alcoholic, but as the beer warms a bit, the alcohol smooths out, leaving a bracing bitterness that dries out my throat and makes me take another sip. It’s a vicious cycle.
Without getting into the simple yet profane rating system developed by my beer geek friends and me, Bigfoot earns top marks in my book. The enamel-strippingly bitter hops are backed up by a strong malt backbone that isn’t overly sweet. I think it’s fair to say that Sierra Nevada Bigfoot is my favorite barleywine.
Past experience with Bigfoot dictates that, while excellent fresh, it will hit a bad patch one to two years out, but will peak again in about three years if kept well, as the malt starts dominating the flavor and aroma. After about five years, all you have is a novelty that reminds you to drink your beer faster. You can find Bigfoot at better beer shops around the city. I picked up mine at the Whole Foods on Houston Street for $12.99 per six-pack. It’s definitely worth your investment if you want a challenging beer for cold winter nights.