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I honestly can't tell you the last time that I walked out of a bottle shop carrying only the beer I went in to purchase. There's always a new release, an obscure bottle, or something I forgot I needed before I went inside. Last year my wife, Lauren, and I went bottle shopping while visiting one of her high school friends outside Baltimore. On one of the lower shelves in a local beer shop, I found a cache of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot from 2008 to 2011. I can't say I went into that store looking for a four-year vertical of American barleywines, but I had a good feeling about the way the staff was storing their beers and the opportunity was way too convenient to pass up. It was an impulse buy, no doubt, but one with merit.
Getting those bottles was the easy part. The hard part was sticking with my initial thought that these beers would be best enjoyed, properly enjoyed, with fresh Bigfoot, which wouldn't come around again for almost a year. They'd never make it through 2011 in our fridge, so I squirreled them away behind other bottles in my basement stockpile.
After the 2012 Bigfoot was released earlier this month, Lauren and I sat down with our friends Mary and Chris for an extended Sunday afternoon brunch to see how the beers had evolved over the years. Mary upped the ante with a bottle from 2002 she'd received as a gift, bringing our total to six editions in a grand tour of a textbook American barleywine.
About the beers and how they were kept: Cellaring beers can be a tricky business, especially if your storage options are limited. The 2012 bottle was sent fresh directly from the brewery. The 2008 through 2011 bottles seemed well-kept when I bought them last year, but they could've gone through just about anything before I came along. They rested in my basement in Harlem, which stays at the high end of the proper cellaring range: about 65°F most of the year, with gradual shifts of about five degrees in the warmest and coldest months. Mary's 2002 bottle spent the better part of the past decade in the cupboard of her Brooklyn kitchen. It's definitely not the optimal way to keep beer for any period of time, but we didn't want to pass up the opportunity to taste the beer 10 years on. We tasted them oldest to youngest so brighter, fresher flavors didn't trample the nuances of aging.
How these beers tasted has just as much to do with how they were stored as how they were made, if not more so. Would the results have been different if each bottle had been kept at perfect 55°F in a dark, semi-dry room since the moment it was packaged? Surely, but that's not really the point. In addition to seeing how different editions of the same beer can evolve with time, we also wanted to see what aged beers can offer those that don't have perfect cellaring conditions.
Our curiosity was quite high even if our expectations were measured. After twisting off the cap—Sierra Nevada switched to pry-off caps in 2007—the 2002 poured dark amber, a good deal darker than the others to come, and completely flat. There was a heavy sherry-like oxidation in the aroma that melded with maple, fruitcake, and dark caramel. The hops were long gone. Molasses came into play with the first sip. While the once-substantial bitterness had passed, the malt that remained wasn't left cloying but had instead turned leathery. The body was a bit thinner than expected and still rather boozy. Overall it held up better than we thought it might, considering it'd spent 10 years without temperature control.
Carbonation hissed as I pried off the cap and poured the hazy, orange amber beer. The aroma opened with brighter citrus hops, fruity malt, spice and molasses. There was considerably more residual sugar and hop bitterness than in the 2002 bottle. Rich caramel malt, candied orange and hints of overripe peach were quite pleasant through midsip. The mouthfeel began soft and chewy before tipping dry with a lingering flavor of bitter orange rind.
Bready caramel malt aroma stands up to the still-prominent citrus hops. There was also a bit of honey and a more pronounced spiciness than we smelled in the earlier bottles. Honeyed fruit and apricot were prominent along with rich malt and a measured sweetness. The finish was pleasant and lasting, but not overly dry. This was the most balanced of the bottles we tried and our favorite of the tasting. If there was more, it would've warranted a second glass.
The 2010 Bigfoot took the hop character up another notch, with aromas of grapefruit and lemon oil. A bit of sherry scent added complexity, but overall we didn't find the aroma to be as balanced as it was in the 2009. Sweet caramel malt and toffee preceded a lingering hop bite, though the bitterness wasn't as sharp on the finish as it was with the 2008. There was noticeably more alcohol heat than in previous bottles.
Everything about this beer tasted fresh. It was well balanced in both flavor and aroma, though on a subtler level than the 2008 through 2010 bottles. In aroma, citrus and piney hops were out front along with bread crust and toast. Prickly hop bitterness provided a counterpoint to the clean, grainy malt sweetness. Its booziness warmed the throat, but it wasn't hot. All of the components were lined up in the 2011 Bigfoot. It was vastly drinkable and could become more interesting with additional time to unwind.
The first thing that struck us about this year's Bigfoot was its brilliant clarity. That initial impression was quickly followed by a huge burst of fresh, sticky hops that screamed "West Coast!" In recent batches Sierra Nevada has only tweaked the Bigfoot recipe to account for differences in crops from year to year, but we picked up a new, juicy tropical character in the 2012 Bigfoot in addition to the citrus that recurred in previous years' bottles. Ample malt sweetness stood up to the hops in aroma and flavor. The 2012's medium full body was smooth and creamy. Maltiness played a much bigger role this year and the bitterness also wasn't as sharp as in some earlier bottles. With the exception of a slightly rough hop burr toward the end of the sip, this was probably the smoothest of the Bigfoots we tried.
What We Learned
So what did we learn? Six bottles of barleywine makes for a terrific brunch. Also, Bigfoot is a prime candidate for cellaring. The 2009 Bigfoot was the unanimous favorite, but we generally liked the depth and added complexity the beers gained with a few years on them (though the 2012s fresh-picked aroma was a standout). The results may well have been different if we'd tried the beers a month or year earlier or later, and that is what's great about tasting beer as it evolves.
Is there a limit to how long Bigfoot could be aged? Under optimal conditions, who knows? But we also learned you can age beers even if you don't have the ideal cellar. You'll just want to drink them sooner because less-than-perfect conditions can speed up the aging process. But, most importantly, cellaring comes with a caveat: Most beers aren't meant to be aged, and even those that are don't necessarily need to be cellared for an extended time.
Consider what you like about the beers before aging them. Those bright hop aromatics will begin to dim (though not disappear) in a matter of months. The bitter punch will soften, as will the booziness that tugs at your tonsils. If those qualities of youth are what you love about those beers, you might be better off drinking them now. Or, better yet, buy a few, drink one now, and save the others for later.