tis the season for a barleywine

12 Nov

After last night’s first truly cold, wet, bike ride home from work, I was chilled to the bone and in the mood for a strong winter beer. I have had Beer Valley’s Highway To Ale American-style barleywine in my basement since June – June is definitely not a time for a barleywine, but November is! It also just so happens that last night was the release party for the Bourbon Barrel Aged Old Tavern Rat at Lompoc, so I picked up a couple of bottles.

Generally when bellying up to a barleywine, I prefer an English-style over an American-style. English-style barleywines are typically darker, maltier, fruitier, and feature richer specialty malt flavors than American barleywines. And for a strong winter ale, I typically prefer an alcohol warm to balance a malty sweetness. If I felt like a big, hoppy beer, there are plenty of Imperial IPAs to pick from. Although American-style barleywines are not as hoppy as an Imperial IPA, they definitely have their fair share of hops, giving these beers a stronger hop aroma and bitterness than their English counterparts. All that said, being able to try a new beer trumps any past preferences. Beer Valley’s Leafer Madness is an excellent brew, and I am looking forward to tasting the Highway To Ale. I have tried many vintages of the Old Tavern Rat over the years, but this will be the first from the bottle.

For the tasting, the Old Tavern Rat has been in the fridge, which is way too cold for a barleywine – actually, for most beers, in my opinion. So, I took it out of the fridge and let it warm for a half hour before cracking the bottle open. The Highway To Ale has been in the cool basement, and is already at the right drinking temperature. Also, I generally prefer a full pint of beer for a tasting as I think it is the best way to get all the flavors of the beer, noting the changes as the beer warms. But these are big beers with Highway To Ale at 10.5% ABV and The Old Tavern Rat at 9.7% ABV. So, for this tasting, I’m going with a half a pint of each, before finishing off the bottles while watching the Oregon v. Stanford football game.

For the tasting, I started with the Old Tavern Rat, because I think the hoppier beer should always be tasted last as the bitterness of the hops affect the taste of any beer that follows.

Old Tavern Rat, Lompoc Brewing, brewed Dec.’09, aged in whisky barrels:
The Old Tavern Rat poured dark brown and effervescent with a cream color head that disappeared quickly. The nose is dominated by aromas of vanilla, mainly contributed by the whisky barrels, with just a hint of caramel in the background. The initial taste is dominated by a nice smooth sweetness, not too sugary, which I really liked. This is quickly overwhelmed by the flavors contributed by the barrel – vanilla, charcoal or coffee. I very much enjoy what bourbon barrel aging brings to a strong ale, but the flavors are predictable. The alcohol finish balances the beer, actually drying the tongue some. It is notable there is barely a hop presence to this beer at all. Toward the end of my glass, as the beer warms, the carbonation has somewhat dissipated; this is far from a defect, actually softening the flavors. If you are a hophead, best steer clear, but if you enjoy slowly sipping a big beer out of a snifter, this is a worthy purchase. Overall, while the beer has the expected profile of a bourbon barrel aging, it has the malty sweetness and warm alcohol I enjoy in a barleywine.

Highway To Ale, Beer Valley Brewing:
Looking at the Highway To Ale, it is red with no noticeable head retention. It has a gentle nose in which I detected a light, sweet caramel malt. It is notable that Beer Valley says this beer has 75 IBUs, which I would expect to be able to smell, but the caramel flavors from the malt dominate. I did detect a mild, very gentle buttery flavor, which is typically characteristic of an English-style barleywine. Generally I don’t think strong hop and buttery flavors go well together, but I like it here as the hop in this beer is not as pronounced as expected. The slight hop bitterness this beer does have, is relegated to the finish alongside the alcohol. While this beer is a bit stronger than the Old Tavern Rat, the alcohol is not as pronounced. I think this beer is mislabeled as an American barleywine. There just isn’t enough hop flavor in the beer. Toward the end of the glass, and slightly warmer, the carbonation disappeared even faster than the Old Tavern Rat. Since this is more of an English-style barleywine, which benefits from less carbonation, this beer smoothed out well as I enjoyed the bottom of my pint. When considered as an English-style barleywine, it is another excellent beer from Beer Valley.

Comparing the two beers – I came to the table expecting two very different beers stylistically, but they were actually very close. The flavor contributed by the bourbon barrel is the major difference. If you like these flavors, the strong vanilla and charcoal, the Old Tavern Rat is available for a limited time at the Sidebar. If you want a straightforward barleywine, pick up a Highway To Ale from your favorite bottle shop. Both will do an excellent job keeping your mind from the soaking cold weather outside.


One Response to “tis the season for a barleywine”


  1. Cheers for Lompoc’s holiday beers! « taphandle - November 19, 2011

    […] This was less sweet and more roast-y than the regular Tavern Rat. For a full review check out Michael’s post from last […]

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