Over the past 3 decades Sierra Nevada has risen to the top ranks of American Craft Breweries, and for good reason. First of all, Ken Grossman began working on this dream in 1979 in Chico California; a time when the term Craft Beer didn’t even exist. The United States was still influenced by very bland, and very lacking mass produced beers; very few varieties of beer even existed. If you wanted to find something with real flavor, something exciting, or something contemplative, well good luck! Soon Ken’s brewery emerged though, and in 1980 when Sierra Nevada produced its first batch, they were instantly acclaimed among the best breweries in the world.
Now their lineup of beers is expansive and wide ranging with five year-round brews, four seasonals, four special releases, and new collaborative beers being created all the time. Sierra Nevada may be best known for their Pale Ale, which really did create the template for what an American Pale Ale should be. As a brewery, they really broke down the barriers for craft brewers and continue to innovate, and produce exceptions beers; each exemplifying fresh and hand crafted qualities.
In Ontario we unfortunately don’t get any of their beers at Beer Stores or LCBO’s, so if you are looking for one you will have to visit your favorite beer bar such as The Beer Bistro or Smokeless Joes, or you can make the trip across the border where it will be hard not to find Sierra Nevada.
The Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale
On the first weekend in December I went to Buffalo with my good friend Jon for a Cask Beer Festival at Cole’s Pub; I should really write about the festival itself, that’s if I could reiterate the entire event properly! It was definitely a good 12 hours enjoying cask and craft beer along with great company and amazing food. The lineup of cask beer was astounding, and the regular draught selection itself was mind-blowing also! Needless to say I was in heaven.
But before we even got to the festival we stopped at my favorite beer store, Premier Gourmet, to stock our beer cellars (as if we could resist). While perusing the seasonal selection from California Jon noticed that there were different Sierra Nevada Bigfoot bottles. After a closer inspection we realized that they had the 2007, 2008 and 2009 vintage years! We both looked at each other, and it was instantly obvious that we would have to get these and enjoy them in a vertical tasting! Wow, you know that gets me excited!
The 2009 vintage is Sierra Nevada’s 25th release of the Bigfoot. Over the years it has won several awards, and achieved accolades from the esteemed beer and spirits writer Michael Jackson, “…Bigfoot captures the imagination, and its character is as big as the name implies, with a huge hoppiness in its earthy aroma, a chewy palate, and a great depth of flavor.” Well put I’d say, and I’d also have to agree. The Bigfoot series has a lot to offer. It’s not what I typically look for in a Barleywine; however it is filled with luscious flavors and packed with aroma, complexity, and a refreshing, and purely California style hop character. I do think that this is a great beer; just as a Barleywine, I think it is a bit of a trickster. It’s much more hopped than a typical barley wine and displays that bitter crisp bite throughout the entire beer and its aroma. I would almost dare to consider it a double IPA. This got Jon very excited.
That all being said, I was still really excited to try these and I decided to throw out the idea of classification and just get right down to enjoying these great beers – we did so in order from youngest to oldest. Each Bigfoot came in a 355ml stubby bottle weight in at 9.5%.
The 2009 Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale:
The 2009 poured smooth with lots of life and excitement brewing in it. It lifted almost no head, and rested quickly in a vigor of bubbles which quickly found the sides of the glass. It really looked exciting; it was deep brown, almost mahogany and somewhat transparent. The nose was light and filled with citrus, mild cream, and a floral hop spice. I was unsure of what to expect; it smelled of rich hops which is not typical of a traditional Barleywine. I let this beer in slowly and it erupted on my palate pushing a heavy cascade hop flavor everywhere it could. The Bigfoot filled my cheeks instantly, coated my tongue, and just pounded hops without mercy at every inch of my palate.
As aggressive as this may sound, it did balance out as I continued to enjoy it with a more floral and grapefruit balance. The bitter hop began to reveal more spice and clove character, and, especially as the beer warmed, more malt sweetness and real barley began to shine through. The malt was dry, lightly caramel like, rusty and aggressive enough to stand closely in second place to the rich hop flavors constant in the beer. There was a tart, almost sour fig like sensation building on the roof of my mouth which was actually quite pleasant and quenching. The 2009 Bigfoot finished fast and resiny with a blast of crisp hops.
I was actually a bit confused by this beer; I thoroughly enjoyed it, however I am reluctant to call it a Barleywine – to me it was really much more of a double IPA. I would even cal lit one sided. There was a very nice malt centre to the beer, but it was simply over powered by a rich and thick blanket of hops. Furthermore, I would normally enjoy a Barleywine at cellar temperature; the Bigfoot though was much more quenching and enjoyable cold and at regular fridge temperature – yet again an IPA trait.
In any case, Barleywine or not, I had fun with the 2009. Both Jon and I were very happy to enjoy it; especially Jon who felt this was the perfect Barleywine for his tastes.
The 2008 Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale:
So how would the 2008 stack up to its younger brother? I wasn’t about to be fooled this time by the double IPA in a Barleywine’s clothing, so I approached it this time with greater caution, and also some inside information.
It poured exactly the same with a lot of activity and excitement. The color was essentially an identical mahogany rich brown, but slightly lighter. It sat there smugly with the same life and vigor that the 2009 did with almost no head and a flurry of bubbles gushing from the bottom center of the beer. The nose however shocked me – there was almost no nose whatsoever! This beer is playing games with me! I really expected something out of this but there really was almost nothing, and Jon confirmed that observation with me.
But into the mouth and down the throat the Bigfoot reminded me about exactly what beer I was dealing with. The beer flowed smooth and full washing flavor over my entire palate. Again it was hop forward followed by the malt. It built in power and assertiveness displaying all the rich hop characteristics of the 2009. The malt was light and slightly sweet with caramel, earth and grainy flavors. Again it finished sharp with a slight tart and sourness which was again refreshing.
The 2008 was cleaner, slightly more refined, and less aggressive than the 2009. One year of age seemed to finish it nicely brining a more mellow elegance to the beer. Oddly enough though this hurt the 2008 Bigfoot for me – it contradicted the beer’s identity and left me looking for more. I enjoyed the 2009 Bigfoot because it stands out of the crowd and declares its dominance heading no preconception of required style or flavor. The 2008 brings a bottle of wine and flowers to dinner, but the2009 Barleywine shows up with a burlap sack of hops and tells the host that he likes his steak done rare!
While the 2008 appeared to be more balanced and well crafted, it fades into the background and is to me just a reasonable Barleywine with an identity crisis. The 2009 however knows exactly what it is, and it stands up and flexes its muscles impressing everyone in the room; including Jon and I.
The 2007 Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale:
Now Jon and I have had each about half of our 2009 and 2008 leaving some behind so that we could accurately compare them to the 2007 side by side. And with a different showing from each of the two we really didn’t know what to expect from the 2007; but we were both very excited. This Bigfoot was now over two years old and as far as we were concerned, ready to drink!
I poured the 2007 into a wine glass as I had the previous two, and it came out almost identical to its younger brothers. There was life in every inch of the glass, bubbles streamed from the centre and resided at the sides of the glass leaving close to no head whatsoever. It was much darker than the others though – the mahogany affect was gone and replaced with more of a deep red brick into brown shade. Standing next to the other two it did really look like the granddaddy.
There was a significant nose this time, which I really enjoyed. Filled with plums, citrus, hops, grapefruit, malt, hay field, and alcohol; it really excited me. I got the feeling that this is what I was waiting for. The 2008 lacked something, and the 2009 to me was to unbalanced. But this so far, at least smelled like it was ready to impress and entertain my palate.
As I sipped this Bigfoot cautiously I was overjoyed with the sensation of malt and lemon sweetness before any hop could barricade my taste buds. This really was what I was looking for – a beautiful Barleywine complimented with hops, not dominated by them. The malt came in smooth and luscious gliding over my palate bringing lots of warm butterscotch, light caramel, earth, that light lemon sweetness and the same resin that was slightly apparent in the other two. The 2007 had all the rich warm malt characteristics that I hope to find in a Barleywine.
The hops then poured across my palate and into my cheeks as I had expected, but it came fashionably late after the malt, as it should have. The hops were still powerful, aggressive, full of citrus, and deep rich piney bitterness, but they understood their place in the beer. With the malt coming in first, it cleared a path for the hops to gallop in completely refreshing the palate. Right then I knew exactly what was wrong with the 2009 and 2008; they were backwards! The hops came through the door first before the host had even shown up, but with the 2007, the Bigfoot was polite and friendly, but still the same old beast. It was much smoother and complete giving it superior balance, and superior scores in my books.
The finish came through as fresh, lightly tart and sour, but very quenching with a touch of ginger at the end. Overall the 2007 had great smoothness and a rich malty mouth feel. The hops were still very powerful, clean and tasty, but balanced with malt and remained refreshing rather than dominating.
To me the 2007 truly was the best of the three. It had depth and heart that I didn’t get from either of the other two. This actually reminded me of the Samichlaus, which I consider to be one of the best Barleywines in the world. Jon however still enjoyed the 2009 the most because of the outrageous face first amount of hops. And I can’t deny it, the hops are delicious, however I still feel that the 2007 displayed a greater smoothness, better complexity and balance, and was overall more enjoyable to me and was a better Barleywine.
Next time I am by Premier Gourmet I plan to grab this three set again and hold onto them for at least another year. Something tells me that each of these will age nicely, and I will very much look forward to the 2010 Vintage release.