Sierra Nevada Black Barleywine

February 07 2011 - 11:28 PM

Sometimes a thing of beauty just grabs you at first sight.  Now, I've had that happen recently in other contexts; but in terms of beer, I present you with Sierra Nevada Black Barleywine. I recently was the fortunate recipient of one of these on tap at Sheffield's Pub in Lakeview.  Sheffield's has a notable craft beer selection and maintains a "beer school" in the back bar near the kitchen where they tap 4-5 craft brews, usually brewers' specialty offers such as Bourbon County Stout or perhaps Old Crumudgeon.  This time the row included the Black Barleywine.  I've had this on tap before and noted it in previous posts about various other beers.  My recent experience was worthy of its own review.

The bartender poured it into a 8 or 9 ounce miniature snifter.  He commented that a lot of beer drinkers would have no part of  a brew served in such a glass.  For this beer it could not be more appropriate.  It's a roughly 10 percent beer with really robust flavor so the serving size and device are apt.  The beer itself sits in the glass like a dark pool of tar with a thin layer of tan foam atop it that's more like a creek's eddy than an actual head.  It smells of roasted barley, bread, and maybe a hint of coffee.   The taste is devastating.  You go in hoping to avoid the usual sweet barleywine caramel, apple, and honey flavors and your fears are eviscerated by bitter chocolate, roasted nuts, and – pledge, turn, prestige – that barley, grain, and wood flavor that grips the finish, taming the drink like bitters tame a cocktail.  Bam!  Welcome to beer heaven.

I've stressed this before.  Sierra Nevada is one of the best breweries in the U.S.  Forget the banal Pale Ale.  Like all the great brewers, they make a variety of outstanding beers that differ substantially, ranging from Torpedo IPA, to Harvest, to the amazing Celebration Ale to the Summerfest lager.  Their barleywines may be the real stars of the show, Bigfoot Barleywine and the Black.  Any serious American craft beer drinker should explore Sierra's formidable lineup.  It's well worth it.

Sheffield's has Black Barleywine on tap as might other bars featuring the top craft brews. I do not believe it's available in bottles because I've never seen Sierra bottle any beer with this high of an ABV.  Too bad.  It's what  I want at home to nurse these winter blahs – bring on the prestige.

–Mark Sheppard