If my worst enemy were to create a beer style in a lab that was the antithesis to everything I appreciate in the beverage, he would probably come up with something akin to barleywine. I like hoppy, not malty; crisp, not creamy; carbonated, bright and floral; on the color scale from amber to golden, with few exceptions.
My wife, on the other hand, loves tripels, doppelbocks and, above all else, barleywines.
It probably goes without saying that our taste-in-beer venndiagram being two non-intersecting circles has its advantages. I don't have to worry about her drinking my beers and vice versa. But on Mother's Day 2018, on a trip to Whole Foods to buy flowers, beef spare ribs and an assortment of fine cheeses, a six-pack of Bigfoot Barleywine-Style Ale caught my eye. She loves barleywine, and I love Sierra Nevada's consistent ability to deliver amazing beers at a reasonable price. Suffice it to say, by the following Friday, the six-pack was gone and my wife had drunk exactly one. The beer, my friends, is good.
My first surprise came on the pour. Bigfoot is a deep amber and clear, with a near-white head that dissipates quickly, none of which is the norm for the barleywines I'm familiar with. The nose, however, is firmly in barleywine territory, dominated by toasted pumpernickel and overripe cherry, with notes of tobacco, bitter orange and cut wood. At 9.6% ABV, it also has the alcohol content to recommend it.
It says right there on the label that Bigfoot is a 'cult classic,' and who am I to argue?”
But upon first sip, it becomes evident how much weight the word "style" in "barleywine-style ale" carries, because a barleywine this is not. This is a big, bready IPA, yet another way station in Sierra's eternal quest to cram as much piney, bitter hop flavor into a bottle as conscience will allow. My first thought when I tasted Bigfoot was "Celebration Ale on Bath Salts," so I wasn't surprised to learn that the two beers contain the same three hop varieties—chinook, centennial, and cascade—and the same malts. Also worth noting that Bigfoot retains quite a bit of carbonation even when allowed to warm up to cellar temp and beyond—another characteristic that differentiates it from most of the barleywine I've had.
But where Bigfoot truly separates itself from a barleywine is in the finish. That sharp, bitter hop explosion present in so many Sierra Nevada IPAs makes a positively Kramer-esque entrance here, effectively excising most all of the dense, malty aftertaste characteristic of barleywines, and resulting in a clean, astringent finale and a palate reset.
It says right there on the label that Bigfoot is a "cult classic," and who am I to argue? A beer that my wife and I both enjoy? Consider me brainwashed. The label also recommends cellaring a few bottles, and so I shall. Will be interesting to taste alongside a few recent "vintages" of Celebration come fall.