Monday 20 February 2012

SF Beer Week: Toronado Barley Wine Festival

On my flight to San Francisco on Monday, I was flicking through the current edition of Beer Magazine, the succinctly titled CAMRA quarterly, and came across an article entitled ‘Does Barley Wine Even Exist?’ The style is almost entirely invisible in English pubs and off-licences these days – I think the only examples I’ve had back home in the past couple of years are Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot (of which more later), and the Brewdog and Three Floyds’ collaboration Bitch Please, which is hardly mainstream stuff in name or flavour. The article’s author, Graham Holter, makes the point that barley wine is experiencing a renaissance in America, and San Francisco’s Beer Week culminates in possibly the largest celebration of the style in the world.

As a result of the scarceness of barley wine in the UK, I was preparing for the Toronado Barley Wine Festival without a clear idea of what one is. It should be high in alcohol – a minimum of 8.5% - with a malty, ‘sticky’ mouthfeel and a brown, rather than black colour, to differentiate it from an imperial stout. It should have some hops, but if it is too hopped, then it can start to veer into the double/triple IPA territory that some SF brewers have explored. I’ve just looked on Wikipedia for their BW ‘style statistics’, with original gravities and SRM colours and so forth, and my preconceptions aren’t too far off.

I hadn’t realized quite how big a deal the Barley Wine Festival is. A pub or bar in London running an event like this might expect to start to fill up at about 4-5pm. Factor in that most of the beers on offer are well into double-figure ABV, and perhaps the event wouldn’t even be that packed. Well, out on Haight St, the first people started queuing up at around 7am, with doors due to open at 11.30. Special pre-festival brunches are on offer nearby – the Magnolia pub further down the street was even promoting a selection of milds and session ales as a contrast.

Once we’d filled up with a big breakfast, we headed down to Toronado for 12 noon to find that the place was packed – although not, according to our friends Mel and Andrei, as busy as at the same time last year (thankfully, in my opinion). On coming through the door, you pick up a sheet of the barley wines on offer – 52 in total, with 46 kegs being poured in the front bar and an extra six in an auxiliary bar in a side room. Beers are served in either small (3oz) or medium (6.5oz) measures – half or full glasses, essentially, although my experience was that the half-glasses  were pretty generous…! Every table I could see was already covered in glasses – with the numbers of the beers written on the coasters underneath to keep track of what was in the glasses.

(I'd never seen anything like this before. Note the papers under the glasses with numbered circles)

As with my first time at Toronado, the ordering system is strictly by number only. Given that the queues at the bar are so big and it takes so long to get served, the savvy drinker selects six that they want to try from the list, bring along a cardboard six-pack holder, shout out your numbers at the bar like a bingo caller (remembering to say small or medium), carefully stack the glasses into the carrier, then take them back to your spot and try to unload them. If this all sounds like an enormous hassle, then you’re forgetting the most important part of the day – we now had six unique barley wines to taste and compare before we had to go through it all again.

All but one of the beers on offer were from American brewers – the sole exception being Emelisse from the Netherlands. There were a few verticals on offer (the same beer but from different years, so you can taste the ageing), as well as some special barrel-aged versions. There were some that were blends of different barrel versions, and even a barley wine blended with an imperial stout (which I’ll get to later).

(Thirty-five of the beers on offer - it continued overleaf, but you get the picture)

As Mel and Andrei knew what they were doing, they picked the first six, which were: Ninkasi Brewing’s Critical Hit 2010, Alaskan brewer Midnight Sun’s Arctic Devil, North Coast’s Old Stock 2008, Rogue’s Old Crustacean 2009, Ballast Point’s Three Sheets (Rum Barrel) and Anderson Valley’s Horn of the Beer. We all agreed that the Arctic Devil was our favourite of the six – the highest ABV of the festival at 13.2%, but super-smooth vanilla oak tones. I found the Three Sheets too sweet (rum barrel ageing suits a darker beer, in my opinion c.f. Lost Abbey/Brewdog’s Lost Dog), but I loved the prominent hops in the Critical Hit 2010. You’ll remember we tried Old Stock 2009 earlier in the week, and the 2008 was a maltier version that perhaps wasn’t quite as good. I don’t remember much of the Horn of the Beer – for the rest of the blog I’ll simply gloss over my poor note-taking! – and Rogue’s Old Crustacean had a sweet, apricot jam flavour that I could imagine being too cloying if we’d had larger pours.

We had taken up a convenient position in an alcove by the auxiliary bar,  which not only gave us one of the few places in any of the rooms with space to set our glasses down, but also easy access to the six beers available on the taps there. We chose number 47 – Alesmith’s Old Numbskull; 49 – Drake’s Frankenwine (a blend of their barley wines); 51 – Pizza Port Carlsbad’s Farley (aged in bourbon barrels) and, just to make up the numbers, 52 – Beachwood’s Annihilator. The latter was awful – an odour of soap and washing-up liquid, followed by the taste of bubblegum and a touch of pine disinfectant. Not very pleasant! The Drake’s Frankenwine was fairly indifferent – a mish-mash of different flavours that blended into nothing much at all, which seems like a waste of all the effort put into the individual barley wines. Thankfully, the other two were better - Old Numbskull was an American-style well-hopped barley wine, with a finish like candied grapefruit peel, while Pizza Port’s Farley was bourbon-barrel perfection. You could smell the barrel as soon as you put your nose in, full of that delicious rich, chocolate-vanilla scent, and it was so smooth and easy to drink. The tastiness, along with our proximity to the keg, meant that this was the only brew we ordered twice. Or three times, as it turned out.

 (The highest ABV drip tray in the world? The auxiliary bar in action)

At about this point, the realisation kicked in that we’d split about 65ozs of 10+% ABV beer between four of us, and it wasn’t yet 1.30pm. The pros that were queuing in the early morning sun had come prepared with lunches and snacks that you are allowed to bring in to eat with your beer, but we were still running on our big breakfast. Our next six included a classic example of the style, Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot 2009. I find the taste of their Pale Ale so distinctive that I could identify it blind, and the Bigfoot takes that base and turns the dial up on everything especially the malt. Apparently collecting Bigfoot is a big thing here - Andrei was telling us about tasting a 16-year-old bottle from a 'Bigfoot Chaser's collection, which must have been incredible.

High Water’s Old & In The Way is billed as ‘English Style’, which means the malt should dominate the palate, and sure enough, it did – like drinking a liquid Highland Toffee bar, but with a burn at the end. The aforementioned blend of barley wine and imperial stout was 50-50’s BART (Barrel Aged Really Tasty), and my notes simply say ‘Accurately named’. The description makes clear that it had been aged in a Jack Daniels barrel, and you could taste the distinctive Jack flavour through this. We also tried Marin’s Old Dipsea 2011, Bear Republic’s Old Scoutter’s and Triple Rock’s Dragonaut – which we only had because the bartender misheard Mel ask for #35 and served her #25 instead - in this bar run.

(Ordinarily I'd list the beers - the centre right beer is Pizza Port's Farley, but not sure about the others...!)

With the time ticking into early afternoon, the bar was pretty much at capacity now, with our well-guarded spot by the second bar being encroached upon and a line outside to get in. A few beers had started to run out, too -  Farley went quite early, along with the Arctic Devil and the Three Sheets (to my surprise). We decided to pick a final six beers and then make our escape before we all passed out. We finally did get the #35 we wanted – Schmaltz’s He’Brew Genesis 15:15. Coincidentally, as we tried this, the brewer walked past us – one of a number of brewers of the beer we were drinking that had come along to enjoy the festival. Genesis 15:15 stood out on the menu as an interesting beer – brewed with dates, figs, grapes and pomegranates, then aged in rye whiskey barrels. This was a glorious, sticky, fruity confection, and I could taste the pomegranate juice in the palate. The barrel had less of an influence here than with other beers we tried, but I’ll put that down to the sheer weight of other flavours going on in there. Disappointment of the day was Deschutes’ Mirror Mirror (2011), a beer that Mel and Andrei assured me was very good when they’ve had it from bottle, but which had an unpleasant acetone/nail polish aromas and a slightly astringent flavour. We reckoned it might be infected.

I convinced our American friends to try Emelisse’s Dutch take on the style, although they weren’t impressed with the upfront hops in there. Uinta’s Anniversary was next, and very tasty – although I did point out that, as the beer was made in teetotal Utah, my expectations were quite low. Next was Speakeasy’s Old Godfather, which was fairly unremarkable, before we completed our vertical of North Coast’s Old Stock with the 2010 version (I think my favourite was the 2009).

With our veins flowing with barley wine, we wandered out into the warm afternoon sun. As we walked up Haight, debating our favourites, what struck me was the sheer variation in flavour across the beers we’d tried – from the dark, rich Farley through to the vibrant, fruity Genesis 15:15 to the big hops of Critical Hit 2010. With such a wide definition of the style to play with, there is so much scope for brewers to play with the style to brew something tasty and different. I understand that a selection of medals are handed at the end of the day – personally, if I had to choose a favourite, I think the Arctic Devil or the Farley would win. The most interesting was the Genesis 15:15, although I don’t know how much of that I could drink – or how often!

After all that strong, strong beer, there was one thing I wanted more than anything else in the whole world. We walked up the hill to Magnolia for a good, old-fashioned pint of mild.


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