One of my favorite things to do every year during the holidays is to “do the math” as part of Glacier Brewhouse’s 12 Days of Barleywine Celebration that runs between December 10 and December 21 this year.
Even though Glacier doesn’t publish or proclaim it, by showcasing 27 knee-knockin’ big beers over the 10 days, imbibers are exposed to some serious big-alcohol beers, and although that’s not what this celebration is all about, the stats are certainly part of the fun for craft beer lovers.
When it comes to the 12 Days of Barleywine, it’s not just that Glacier “does it,” it’s that they “can.” Singularly, aside from major festivals and other events designed to bait in big beers from multi-brewery sources, I’m adamant that there are few other, if any breweries in the world that could haul up so many different barleywine selections, and feature such a varying configuration of them on draft, for as sustained a period. And for all you nigglers out there, yeah, even I could probably haul as many bottled versions of barleywine from my own cellar, but I don’t have a drop on draft. What Glacier’s been doing every year is clearly extraordinary.
So, just what is a barleywine and why is the style noteworthy?
Barleywine, as the name may hint, seems like the cross between a beer made with barley, and a wine. Barleywine is a popular moniker that at least originally, referenced the strength of the beverage, or a beer with a wine’s alcoholic strength. That remains fundamentally intact today, but the potency of barleywine has morphed to well beyond a wine’s reasonable range.
According to the Brewer’s Association 2021 Style Guidelines, a barleywine ought to range from about 6.9 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), to as high as 9.6 percent.
Well, I guess that’s if you’re mainstream. That’s just not good enough for we Alaskans that are known for being bigger and bolder in everything.
If Glacier’s annual rotating selections are any indicator of our love for the big stuff, of the 27 beers offered over the 12 days this year, the average ABV is 10.2 percent. The “weakest” beer is nine percent, and the strongest is 11.37 percent, and that’s one of four beers in this year’s formidable array that competes for the distinction of having the most muscle. Oh, and for the record, we have many beers up here that are stronger yet. Anchorage Brewing Company for produces A Deal With the Devil Barleywine, that, in its first year, weighed in at over 17 percent ABV, for example.
So, now that we’ve exerted our big beer bragging rights and we got the statistics out of the way, lovers of the style don’t just chase it because of the booze knock, although the warming sensation and especially some heat in the swallow is a desirable, and quite enjoyable characteristic.
Beyond the booze, barleywine is one of the most intensely rich and flavorful beers in all of the styles. Although the forerunning British style tends to be “milder” overall, if there is such a term, both it and the broader American style get a lot of respect for assertiveness, boldness, and certainly a powerful punch.
Expect a lot of malt in most barleywines, which is detectable in both in the nose and across the palate. Although the beer’s color in the glass can be all over the chart (with a range between golden, but usually deep reddish browns, to even opaque brown), if color hints at the flavors that usually follow in medium-to-darker colored beers, barleywines have a lot going on.
Caramel, toffee, molasses, dark, dried fruit, and bready and toasty elements, among other sensations, ranging from moderate to quite assertive are common aromas that waft off the beers with no, minimal, or off-whit heads, and the aromas often follow through in the flavor.
My personal favorite descriptors - when I find them in the multitude of styles we experience up here - include sensations of leather, treacle, tobacco, raisins and plums in all combinations entice the palate. Depending on a brewer’s nuances, the beers can range from sweet to moderately dry, and with all combinations of hop flavors, and with mild and just-balancing to assertive bitterness.
Add barrel aging (which is very common in the style) and the beer gets even more complex, taking on not only the natural contribution of the wood itself, but sometimes intense concentrations of flavor profiles associated with what was in the barrel before it was filled with the already brooding barleywine elixir.
Barleywines are also thick beers. This attribute is known as mouthfeel, and at a minimum, most barleywines are chewy, and can range from just plain heady, to oily and slick, and depending on the alcohol content, can leave “legs” tracing down the sides of the appropriately served snifter as the beer is consumed.
In sum, barleywines provide a very rich, very complex swirling mix of aromas and flavors, in various intensities, a range of alcohol content that can come across as simply detectable and warming to obvious heat, and a you end up with a very pleasurable, slow-sipping drinking experience once you’re used to so much all at once.
Glacier’s 12-day collection of big beer this year includes eight beers conditioned in steel tanks, and the rest conditioned in oak casks from familiar distilleries like Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Laphroaig, Buffalo Trace, Jack Daniels, and Heaven Hills. A couple of selections come out of “raw” Hungarian oak barrels, and one from American oak barrels from the Beaulieu Vineyards in Napa.
Some in this year’s mix aren’t barleywines, but remain in the big beer category based on strength. This doesn’t mean they should be discounted. Another all-time favorite big beer style of mine is Eisbock, and Glacier’s featuring six of them this year, along with five Russian imperial stouts.
Two different barleywines are featured each day, along with one of two cask conditioned barleywines that are incredibly special. Digging into the vault, the oldest selections (bareleywines actually improve with age up to a point) are a couple of 2015 vintages, and of course, there are at least four new (2021) additions this year.
Another incredible statistic for me is that this is Glacier’s 21st annual barleywine celebration, attesting even more to Glacier’s devotion to this Alaskan-esh style that I’m so proud of, and you should be too. We’ve got some serious bragging rights when it comes to big, bold winter beers up here.
The choices are daunting, and although I discover my favorites as I drink through them, I always cheat and call the brewer in advance. “The 2017 Eisbock aged in Laphroaig barrels for eleven and a half months releases on day four,” says Glacier brewmaster Drew Weber. “The first year, it was so peaty, it was almost overwhelming. The second year, it tasted pretty darned good, and the third year was right where I wanted the beer to be, so I’m really excited to see how it is this year,” he says.
Drinking all of the beers through all of the 12 days is a challenge, to say the very least. It’s not only a challenge to get to the brewery every day, but the whole thing is a big beer endurance test as well. Just for perspective, I’ve only done the entire flight once in all the years the event’s been happening. I know many others that have done it multiple years, and that makes me feel, well, puny, as big beers go.
To give you an idea of what it felt like the year I did it, I got so accustomed to heading to the brewery every evening after work and on weekends inclusive of the 12 days, that running on booze-fueled autopilot, I showed up on day 13 as well, not even realizing the gig was over. Needless to say, I was having a great time.
I don’t think it’s because Weber’s feeling sorry for me for my one-time faux pas by showing up on day 13, but something is happening on day 13 this year, and its rather special.
“We’re releasing one of the twenty-seven beers in a 22 ounce bomber bottle. We’ll choose the one we think is best. It will be a fancy bottle with a fancy label, so that people can take something home with them for now or to add to their own vintage collection.
Are you up for the challenge? Even if you can’t make every single day and drink every single beer, you’re missing out if you don’t go after what fancies you in the mix. Monitor Facebook and the Glacier Brewhouse web page for the release of the full list of this year’s beers, and get down there for what you want, or what you can handle, whatever applies best for you.