In the early 1900s and before, a brewers first runnings of the mash (the first amount of sweet liquid that they would drain off the soaked malts) would always be the strongest, and would indeed be very rich given the large quantity of malted barley used at the time. Every successive running would allow the brewer to create the same beer, but with lesser alcohol and character each time. Thus with 1 mash but 3 sparges (filtering water though the grains) the brewer could create 3 similar beers of varying strength (ie. 12, 7, and 4%). This very first running, the strongest of the three, created a high alcohol beer known as a Barleywine.
Today a barleywine is widely considered by brewers and beer aficionados to be the epitome of brewing expertise. The style has become popular enough too that various brewing regions have adapted the style to their own preferences – and hence, the American Barleywine was born. This is of course a more heavily hopped, and drier barleywine than the original English style, and it commands respect world wide. From Up-State New York then comes the Southern Tier Back Burner Imperial Barleywine style Ale; a quintessential example of American Barleywine.
Although Southern Tier calls it an Imperial Barleywine, it is really just a Barlywine. These beers by definition are anywhere from 8 to 12% abv, and sometimes even higher. The Back Burner comes in at 10% abv, thus placing it directly in the median. An Imperial Barleywine would be 18 or 19% – they do exist. Southern Tier’s recipe is a relatively simple one; the Back Burner is brewed with three grains, two hops, and is dry hopped with an additional two. This would seen very classically American to me. This beer is released every February so to enjoy its warming malts in the dead of winter, however you could easily hold onto it until the next cold season runs by. Beers like this beg to be aged smoothing out the flavors and bringing greater complexity and power.
I opened the Back Burner up at the upper end of cellar temperature around 13 or 14C (57F) and poured it into a wide mouth snifter. The beer was very silky and oil like showing great depth in color even before the growing ruby beer hit the glass. What formed was a richly crimson red beer with deep caramel browns, copper, and thick burgundy resting in the center. A short head just under an inch build up showing dense carbonation, tightly packed bubbles, and a soft light brown to tan color. It sat there with a creamy and silky cap to a monstrous looking beer.
The nose is richly warming with thick and gooey caramel malts. Its filled with the aromas of light brown sugar and toffee, but shows a definite dry side, and citrus hops are also easily present. Its not overly bitter, and seemingly less so than many of its American counterparts, but the hops come in with a proper balancing of the rich malts which show a strong presence and an obviously dry sweetness.
On your palate the Back Burner delivers smooth and creamy malt flavors at every inch. The richly caramel malt aromas burst into action now showing your tongue a wide dark fruit flavor that hints at dried cherries, blood orange, a touch of spice and hints of warmth. Toffee and caramel are really round here and melt across your cheeks bringing deep flavor everywhere.
The overall sweet malt sensation is dry, but somehow very fruity. It strikes a very nice balance between rich sugar and mellow malt. What helps create this illusion is a soothing dose of both bittering and aroma hops. The backbone of the Back Burner is dense malt (dark cherries, dried apricots, prunes, and figs), but it is made possible by a lightly grapefruit flavored hop aroma that brings a touch of pine, earth and spice along with it. It helps to soften this beer without being too bitter.
It is actually not very bitter at all, not compared to most American Barlywines. But it is dry, dry and malty. There is greater complexity in the flavor than I would have originally anticipated as I begin to get vanilla, a hint of ginger, and Grand Marnier. This is a warming and rich barleywine, but it dryer than I normally enjoy. I tend to favor the juicy, gooey barleywines. This though would make an excellent desert pairing with rich chocolates, or would be a wonderful companion to a aromatic cigar.