The Brew Site

The Session #12: Barleywine

It’s the first Friday of the month, which means it’s time for The Session, where bloggers (beer and otherwise) all over the web write on a given beer-related topic, and the results are all compiled. I’m very pleased to be hosting The Session this month, which means I’ll be collecting links to all the posts on the topic I had chosen: Barleywine.

Barleywine is one of my absolute favorite styles. One of the notable characteristics of the style is its high alcohol content: ranging from 7%-9% (by volume) on up. But that’s not what lands the style on my list of favorites; rather, these are intense and complex ales made for sipping and reflection, much like a cognac or a Scotch. What better time of year to approach it than the dead of winter, when the snow blankets the ground and the nights are long?

(A quick note about the style name… traditionally it’s written "barley wine" but a more recent trend is to combine these into the single "barleywine." I myself prefer the latter, as I think it distinguishes itself better from "wine" and just, well, seems to flow better. But both are correct and I won’t quibble.)

Of the various beers I considered writing about, I ultimately chose Mirror Mirror from Deschutes Brewing, for several reasons. For starters, I have—or rather, had, since I’m now short one bottle—two bottles of this beer, vintaged 2005… which means it’s nearly three years old and I’ve been eager to try it.

For another, it was the first in Deschutes’ Reserve Series of beers, of which the most notable recently has been The Abyss. But in 2004, well before The Abyss appeared, the brewers crafted a draft-only barleywine: Mirror Mirror. The name came from (if I’m remembering the story correctly, which I may not be) the fact that they based the beer on the recipe for the Brewery’s popular Mirror Pond Pale Ale—only doubling the malt bill. It was a big hit at the pub.

When they brewed this beer again, in 2005, they aged it for four months in French Oak wine barrels before releasing it in bottles as the first of their Reserve Series.

When it came out, I loved it, and realized that for a limited run on a beer like this, storing a few extra bottles away could be a good thing. So I bought two.

And what a good thing it was!

It sits at a warm 11.5% alcohol by volume, and only came in 22-ounce bombers. You’ll notice the "Mirror Mirror" glass in my picture, too… I picked up a pair of those snifters at the annual Garage Sale Deschutes holds, for something like $1 each.

Appearance: Thick tawny-amber, approaching brown. Creamy, wood putty-colored head.

Smell: Wonderfully sweet and fruity and complex; a touch of (charred) wood coupled with sweet alcohol heat; sour black cherry; black licorice; leather; plummy Scotch.

Taste: Sweet wash of alcohol strength and dark fruit (prunes, dates, black currants) followed by a dry oak character that blends it all together nicely. This is very, very nice… no harsh notes, it’s warming and sweet and malty with a hint of Belgian rock candy—darker sugars. A hint of toasted honey malt paired with brown sugar and molasses… there’s a bit of rum, even bourbon, here. A cognac of a beer for sure.

Mouthfeel: Full-bodied and smooth and chewy (but creamy), and that effect that starts syrupy sweet and finishes dry (with woody notes) is amazing.

Overall: Perfection. I love love love this beer, and while I’m glad I have one bottle left… I need to find more of these!

On BeerAdvocate, it scores a grade of A-. On RateBeer, it scores 3.64 out of 5 and is in their 91st percentile… high marks all around.

But wait! The Session’s only just begun! I’ll be collecting all the links to the other Session posts I can find today (and this weekend, as they trickle in), and be posting the roundup later today (or tomorrow).

While you’re waiting… open a barleywine.