The Great Dane Pub and Brewery just released the highest-alcohol beer it has ever made. The downtown Madison brewpub has finally put its Belgian Barleywine on tap after more than a year of fermenting and conditioning. This is not your mainstream, light, bubbly golden brew. The term "big" is hard to avoid, with the beer's near 14% ABV, bold, sweet flavor and lots of mouthfeel. The alcoholic warmth can be felt on the lips even before a drop hits the tongue.
Style: Barley wines are bold, complex and high in alcohol. The English version features malty sweetness, while American versions are usually more hoppy. These beers are a rich dark brown to bold bronze, and full-bodied. The barley wine is a showcase of malt, sometimes with a sherry-like aroma and flavor, especially in the malty English version. With wine-like strength, barley wines can be quite high in alcohol, exceeding 10% ABV.
Background: This beer was collaboratively brewed in late 2008 by the Great Dane brewmaster Rob LoBreglio and Capital Brewery brewmaster Kirby Nelson. They made it as an attempt to break a record for the highest alcohol in a beer while still following the Reinheitsgebot (German Purity Law of 1516) that says beer should be made only with malt and no sugar adjuncts. Their goal was to approach or exceed 17% ABV. They ended up at 13.75% alcohol with this barley wine. Record or not, there's plenty of alcoholic warmth in this beer.
The Great Dane has a following among beer aficionados for its Old Scratch barley wines, with their rich caramel flavors and alcoholic kick that often exceeds 10% ABV. A few of them even have Great American Beer Festival medals to their credit. Various vintages of Old Scratch come on tap from the first winter snowfall until springtime. This version is the pinnacle of the Dane's releases this winter. A key difference for this beer was fermentation with a Belgian yeast strain, thus the name Belgian Barleywine.
LoBreglio and Nelson brewed the beer in December 2008, and other brewery staff watched over it and added fresh wort to keep the yeast active. It was kept in storage for nearly 14 months. While there is a limited amount, there's talk around the Great Dane that some of the Belgian Barleywine may find its way into bourbon barrels for release next winter in the series of vintages that begin to be released with the first snowflakes of the season.
The Great Dane always serves its high-alcohol barley wines in a snifter. They sell for around $5/glass.
- Aroma: Fruity, even a light sourness that seems out of place once the sweetness of the malt grabs the taste buds.
- Appearance: Hazy light copper with a thin, bubbly, tan head.
- Texture: Full-bodied, thick, round and warm. Initial texture is actually bubbly, probably from the carbonated serving. As it warms, expect it to soften and become thicker on the tongue.
- Taste: Strong caramel malty flavor with a raisin-like spicy background.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Warm and malty with lingering spiciness.
Glassware: This is a beer for a snifter. Take your time to sip, swirl, and allow it to warm slowly to bring out even more of its sweet, spicy boldness.
Pairs well with: As with most barley wines, finding a food companion is challenging. There is just too much sweetness and raw maltiness to match well with a main course. However, it does make a very nice after-dinner drink -- it's a dessert beer on its own.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four).
The Verdict: Belgian Barleywine is a beer for those on a constant quest to find something they've never had before -- and may not have again. I admit, I'm one of those always looking for the next unique pint in a never-ending beer scavenger hunt. For that reason, I enjoyed this brew, and recommend that big beer lovers try it. It's pricey at $5 for half a brandy snifter. However, I might go back for another. Just not until after this month's credit card bill is paid.
I appreciate this beer for the collaboration from two breweries, their brewmasters and several brewery staff. All that just adds to the anticipation and hype of its release. If you gravitate to big barley wines, or even if you just want to know what they taste like, this beer offers some of what the style is known for, with assertive malty character and warmth.
What I felt was a bit much for a beer was an in-your-face syrupiness and thick, sticky mouthfeel that's more akin to spirits like Drambuie and B&B Cognac Liqueur. That being the case, such sweetness is accentuated by the beer's alcoholic strength -- and that half-a-snifter quantity seem just right.