In the ever expanding array of choices that grace the shelves of today’s liquor stores there are a few key buzz words that will usually garnish my attention. “Barrel aged” is a big one but when combined with the words English barleywine I will usually end up with the adoring bottle in my cart. I am a sucker for a good barrel-aged English barleywine and when it comes from a brewery that I have enjoyed in the past it is a no brainer. Clown Beer brewery from Ipswitch, Mass. has released quite a few brews that I have enjoyed1 and if they put out an example of one of my favorite styles I will bite.
Bluegrass Billionaire is a recent release from Clown Shoes and is adorned with the creative branding and bottle art I have come to expect from the brewery. The barrel-aged English barleywine clocks in at a hefty 12.5 percent ABV. I am excited to crack it open and am already wishing I had multiple bottles to stash away.
The bottle opens with a faint hiss and pours a deep brown with reddish hues that turns beautiful ruby when held to the light. A healthy khaki head forms that sticks around for a while. The heavy smell of bourbon is the first thing to jump out as I raise the glass. Molasses, brown sugar and oaky vanilla also waft from the glass but I am not met with the big rich sweetness one would expect from an English Barleywine. I get a musty old hop character that would normally come with the American version of the style. Overall the bouquet is interesting but does not capture the imagination like some of the past gems that have crossed my desk: Mother of all Storms and Bourbon County Barleywine.
My first sip brings many of the aforementioned flavors including molasses, vanilla and bourbon along with some dark fruits and alcohol. The presence of an earthy faded hop profile is where things start to go a little awry for me. Personally, when I think of a barrel-aged English barleywine I Invision the balanced marriage of the vanilla, toffee and oaky notes of the barrel with the big rich sweetness of the malty base beer. These two components should be the stars of the show and while this beer does have most of those characteristics it falls a bit short in putting them all together. The addition of the heavy handed hop character adds an unwanted twist that muddles the experience.