The craft beer scene is a far different animal today than it was in the late 1970s. That might seem like an obvious statement, but think about how much different things were when Ken Grossman started Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. There were no labs to buy yeast from, no catalogs of different hop verities to choose from and no other craft breweries to buy used equipment from. All of the equipment they used to start Sierra Nevada was made from scrap metal and old dairy farm equipment. Fast forward thirty-five years later and Sierra Nevada is one the largest craft breweries in the country and producing over a million barrels of beer each year.1
It is quite an impressive feat that not only is Sierra Nevada still around today but they are also still pushing the brewing envelope and producing beers that create a huge amount of buzz in the beer world. One of the recent buzz worthy beers from Ken Grossman’s crew was a barrel-aged version of Bigfoot barleywine. Bigfoot is the quintessential American barleywine and is a personal must buy in my opinion every year when it is released. It was first brewed in 1983 and to celebrate the beer’s 30th birthday, a small batch was laid to rest in a mix of whiskey barrels for one year.
That batch of Bigfoot emerged from the barrels quite a different beast then when it was put in. To write this review I wanted to get a feel for how the barrels changed the beer so I cracked open a bottle of the regular releases from 2013 to drink side by side. I started with the standard version and as always I thoroughly enjoyed it. The hops have died off a bit and the flavors are starting to round out little more than when it was fresh. I then opened the barrel aged version and was impressed as soon as I caught a whiff of the beer from the bottle.
The nose had the very familiar Bigfoot smell of earthy hops and rich malty sweetness but it was met with distinct bourbon, rich caramel and toffee plus a touch of oak. The barrel-aged version had a much more well rounded nose and was not nearly as sharp as the standard version.
With my first taste of the barrel-aged version I am impressed. Most barrel-aged beers are so heavy on the barrel character that it has zero resemblance to the base beer and that was not the case with this beer. The barrel character was very noticeable and was a huge part of the beer but did not over power the Bigfoot. The toffee and molasses notes melded perfectly with the once assertive resiny hop character of the base beer to create a much more complex experience. Big oak tannins are present throughout the sip along with hints of raisons, brown sugar and a touch of coconut.
The finish starts out with a rich sweetness but is quickly met with a big boozy bite. This beer clocks in at over 12 percent ABV and every bit of it comes through in the finish.2 The oak sticks around as well, seemingly lasting forever. It almost crosses the line and becomes a tad much but manages to stay just on the right side of the “over powering” line.