Tuesday, March 25, 2008

6th Annual Hard Liver Barleywine Fest

I have been dreaming of attending this week-long festival for years. Unfortunately, something always seems to get in the way. First, it takes place three hours away in Seattle, which means I would need to spend the night up there. Second, since 8% ABV is considers a weak barleywine, I would really prefer to have someone there, to "watch my back", but finding someone who can take off on an overnight trip in the middle of the week just to support my drinking habit has been difficult. However, this year was different, and by 5 p.m. Wednesday Noelle and I were walking into Brower's Café (unquestionably one of the greatest beer drinking establishments I have ever seen).

Sampling the 50+ barleywines reminded me a lot of ordering food at a Chinese restaurant. In order to keep things as simple as possible I would pick out several 3 oz sections from the menu and order based on the number next to that beer. The 60+ taps behind the bar all had masking tape wrapped around the handles with a number that corresponded to the menu.

First up was a very special Old Bawdy from Pike Pub & Brewery in Seattle that was kegged back in 1996. It looked dark brown but showed its ruby highlights when held up to the light. The aroma was all about the dark fruit (figs mostly) and molasses, although once it warmed up the smell of brown sugar became apparent. The bold taste of coffee and heavily roasted grains danced in my mouth. There was roasty bitterness down the sides and in the back but it was strangely sweet (molasses) down the middle of my tongue. As you might expect from a 12 year old beer, it finished dry and left and a little astringent.

Next, I couldn't resist the allure of a barleywine from Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Northern California. This beer, called Horn Of The Beer, was a beautiful dark crimson color with a thin light tan crown. It was just as pleasant to smell as it was to look at. Plums, raisins and toffee combined with the faint smell of alcohol to make me a very thirsty camper. In my mouth, flavors of apples and plumbs swirled around in what was a surprisingly light bodied beer (for the style). I could also detect the faintest hop bitterness on the top of my tongue.

Curiosity then got the better of me and I ordered up a 2007 vintage of Pike's Old Bawdy for comparison's sake. In almost every way this was the yang to the '96s yin. This was much lighter in color, more of a medium ruby. The aroma was similar to the '96, but each individual facet seemed to blend much more easily together. I got the impression the aroma was comparatively muted. It was almost sticky sweet after having it's dried out older brother. The "lighter" flavors stood out in this one. Apple and caramel were predominant and there was a little hoppy bitterness down the middle.

It was about this time I started to let slip my attachment to sobriety. I also noticed that most of the flavors seemed to be similar from beer to beer, not so surprising since they are all the same style. So, for the rest of the tasting I only wrote down the things that stood out.

Shiver Me Liver from Skagit River Brewery in Mount Vernon, WA was up next. This too was sticky sweet and I could swear I was tasting brown sugar on my teeth. It was mellower and less bitter than the previous beers, but did seem to have more of a fusel alcohol taste. It also had more of a pear flavor rather than that of an apple.

My inner-geek (maybe not so inner sometimes) convinced me to try Old Wookie from Water Street Brewing in Port Townsend, WA. It had a pleasant floral aroma, but the flavor was incredibly bland. I didn't realize it was possible to make a virtually flavorless barleywine. I was so disillusioned that at the bottom of my notes in bold capital letters I wrote "Never drink Water Street beer again!"

Then I realized that I could just be suffering from "taste bud fatigue" and maybe the Old Wookie wasn't as bland as I thought it was. I decided on another beer just to make sure (funny how once I get a few drinks in me all my decisions tend to lead to more beer). Walking Man Brewing Co was a brewery I trusted and they just so happened to bring Old Stumblefoot up from Stevenson, WA. Turns out I was right the first time, Old Wookie just sucked. This beer had all the flavors and aromas I had come to expect from my early beers other than it was slightly sweeter and had a mild bitterness to it.

To mix things up, I next chose the Harvest Ale that J.W. Lees & Co. brought over from jolly old England. This sort of reminded me of the '96 Old Bawdy with it's dark molasses and brown sugar aromas, but it was much softer and the fragrances blended together much more playfully. As with most heavy beers from across the pond, raisin flavors dominated the palette. Some brown sugar flavors peaked out in the back and lingered in the aftertaste where they were joined by some dark fruit flavors. There was absolutely no bitterness at all.

For my final beer of the evening I decided on Widdershins from Left Hand Brewing Co. in Longmont, CO. I wasn't able to pull much out of the aroma; however, this beer stood out because there was a strong smoke flavor component. It's not something I normally enjoy, but it was just so different and unexpected that I couldn't help but appreciate it.

Overall, the evening was a blast. I hope I can go back someday and stay for multiple sittings. Maybe I'll even get there on opening day and participate in the judging.