I’ve long said that barley wines are my absolute favorite style of beer. Since the beginning in fact. The first beer that ever truly blew my mine was Stone’s Old Guardian. And it was a barley wine. I’d never heard of barley wines at the time–I think the only styles I knew of then were “Shitty Tasting,” “Shitty Tasting Lite,” and “Shitty Tasting with Lime”–but I immediately assumed it must be my favorite style and began to seek them out with a reckless abandon. Stuff like Lagunitas Olde GnarlyWine and Brown Shugga, Sierra Nevada Big Foot, and Southern Tier Backburner were near-equally loved for their candy malted rich booziness, and I assumed I must like literally everything from the style. For years I never passed a barley wine I’d yet to try without purchasing it. But lately, I’ve been wondering if it’s still my favorite style, going so far to wonder if it’s an unsophisticated beer geek style that I’ve grown too old for. A childish style you enjoy before “advancing” to the more adult imperial stouts and double IPAs and funky bunch sours. Well, luckily, I had a few barley wines over the past few weeks that affirmed that I still very much like the style, even if it is probably no longer my overall favorite.
Thomas Hooker Old Marley
10% ABV bottled
Downtown Bar and Grill is an absolute enigma of a craft beer bar. Firstly, it’s unquestionably the most brightly lit bar in New York. The picture above was taken without using a flash of any kind. It’s late night “mood” lighting is brighter than a Ruby Tuesday’s AFTER the lights have gone up at 2 AM and the junior high flunkies have started vacuuming. Likewise, it’s seemingly run by a group of ambiguously Middle Eastern men that seemingly know absolutely nothing about beer. Or the English language. You ask them for something on tap and they stare at you like you asked if you could fuck their wives. You point to a tap and make friendly conversation, “How’s that one, any good?” and they just pour you a full glass and hold out their open palm for $7. You wonder what style a certain oddball beer is on the menu and they turn and yell something in Sanskrit to their buddies. They’re not rude there, don’t get me wrong, they’re just…clueless. I think. It’s like the oddest practical joke being perpetrated: these half-dozen Middle Easterners decide to open a simple “American” bar and then for some reason start getting shipped some of the best beers in the known world. Who is the Wizard behind their beer curtain?
Without question, they have the best bottle list I’ve ever seen. Unlike Spuyten Duyvil which is very skilled at writing on the wall a list of amazingly impressive beers–and then even more amazingly impressive at never having any of these in the back room–Downtown B & G actually has everything they list. And I’m not kidding about everything. Pretty much every vintage of every Brooklyn Brewery or Dogfish Head beer ever made dating back a decade or more, bottles of Sam Adams Utopias and Millennium, fuck, they even have Westvleteren 8 and 12 (for a mere monk-angering $50 a whack.) Another great thing about Downtown is that they have the most interesting happy hour deals you’ve ever seen. Whereas most bars have the pitcher of Coors for $8, maybe a bucket of Heinies for $15, Downtown will have something like…a beautiful plastic cork-plungered 25 oz. bottle of 10% barley wine for $10. Yes sir, that’s how to get properly slobber-knockered on a Monday! I’d been quite pleased with Thomas Hooker’s highly acclaimed dopplebock, so of course I gave this a whirl. And it wasn’t bad. Certainly well worth the Alexander Hamilton. A tad cloying in a malty syrupy way, but still pretty tasty. Aged in bourbon casks this has a nice little touch of vanilla and oaky smokiness. Took me a full half of football to finish and made my evening’s canoodling a bit of a disaster.
Mad River John Barleycorn (2008)
9.5% ABV bottled
My man Jay at Hedonist Beer Jive hooked me up with this beer I’ve never heard of from a brewery I’ve never heard of. But that’s cool, I haven’t heard of a lot of shit. Like the famous Irish folk song this beer takes it’s name from (fun Wikipedia entry alert!) So glad Jay sent this my way though, because it was very solid. A nice burnt dried malty sweetness. Very caramel tasting, but perhaps a little too boozy. A little too boozy?! Am I growing soft? (Did I just end a second straight beer review with an inadvertant e.d. barb?)
Dieu Du Ciel! Solstice D’hiver
9.8% ABV bottled
Montreal’s Dieu Du Ciel! (the exclamation point is part of their name (!!!)) has become THE latest brewery that, if I spot a bottle of their’s I have yet to try, there’s absolutely no chance I will pass on it. Their stuff isn’t exactly super-rare or anything, it’s just that New York isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with stock of it. And, ever since I tried their legendary Peche Mortel, a strong contender for best stout in North America, I’ve been on a mission to have everything they make. True, I have yet to find anything quite as good as Peche Mortel–then again, few beers ARE as good as that–but everything I’ve had from the exclamatory brewery has been quite swell, unique little twists on standard styles. Their barley wine was no exception. Boozy caramel tastes like a fine liqueur you get in a hotel bar, with a strong bitter finish with the hops coming through strong. Would be a nice candidate for aging but for the time being a quite pleasant sipper. And Dieu Du Ciel always give you pleasant bottle artwork to admire as you start slip slidin’ away.