Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Sierra Nevada - Bigfoot Barleywine Review
Brewery: Sierra Nevada (CA)
I've always heard that Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot barleywine is extremely hoppy when fresh, but I took that with a grain of salt. It's a barleywine, after all, a style that varies hugely in execution, but generally can be expected to bring big sweetness — lots of malt and caramel flavors. You'd need a lot of hops just to balance out all that malt — and if you want to push a pronounced hop character beyond that, you'd need a ton of hops.
Well, they weren't kidding — a young bottle of Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot barleywine really blurs the line between imperial IPA and barleywine. And drives home how nebulous some style distinctions are — I can think of a few East Coast imperial IPAs that are sweeter and stickier than this; even pouring the same shade of ruby amber. Only the nose is surprisingly tame, smelling of clean malts and caramel, with few hints of the hoppiness underneath. But take your first sip and Bigfoot socks you hard with way more bitterness, and way more hoppiness, than you'd ever except from a malty 9.5% ABV barleywine. The 90 IBUs express themselves to their full extent with harsh, earthy bitterness, a resinous and sticky palate, and a surprisingly dry finish.
To some extent, all these aggressive flavors are soothed by the sweet malts underlying Bigfoot, and by the pleasant fruit and citrus character delivered by those Northwest whole cone hops. There's the classic Chinook character of pine and citrus, followed up by more timid grapefruit from Cascade and Centennial. If you've had Sierra Nevada's Celebration IPA, this is basically an amped-up, imperial version of that; same hop character, same semi-sweet backing malts. With a few months of aging, those malts will pop out more, undoubtedly bringing an entirely new set of nuances to the beer. But fresh, Bigfoot is a bitterness assault, with the malts struggling merely to provide a backbone, much less their own complexities. As a hop fan, I enjoy the (un)balance, but it will definitely take some by surprise.
While I'm thoroughly enjoying this bottle of Bigfoot, it puts me in a weird position as far as recommendations. Fresh, it's basically an oddball IPA, and in most cases I'd probably rather just have an IPA. If you're a fan of old ales — Barleywines that lean toward sweet, complex malt character — you'd have to let this one sit for a good six months at least to achieve that sort of balance. There are many beers that stay truer to the nature of barleywine from the start, but Bigfoot would be an interesting beer for aging, certainly. Fresh, it's undoubtedly tasty — but you better know what you're getting into.
Availability: Seasonal release; winter. 12 ounce bottles.