Okay, so I’m a week and a half late in posting this. It’s not my fault that Jay Brooks has blogged about three dozen times since the moments we shared at the judges table in Seattle, just to make me look bad, I’m sure. I tell you, the man is obsessive…
Anyway, back to the beer. We were given eight finalists to judge on the afternoon of March 21, 2009, in the palatial office space of Messrs. Bonney and Vandenberghe, the two “Matts” who own and operate Brouwer’s Cafe. Which, considering that there were only 41 barleywines in total, meant that either the early round judges had been slacking or the talent really was that good this year.
Fortunately, it turned out to be the latter. At least mostly.
One finalist was eliminated in pretty short order – I believe a smell of cheese was mentioned – and while there was more discussion regarding the second elimination, it, too, was fairly apparent. Then things got tough, as we anointed seven worked and wrangled to pare ourselves down to three or maybe four finalists.
One of those pared is worth mentioning: Lost Abbey Angel’s Share. While I and the other judges enjoyed this beer tremendously, there was an undercurrent of it being extremely good, but not a true barleywine, which resulted in its elimination. (For the record, I was a vocal part of that undercurrent, although I scored the beer high for its excellent structure and balance of barrel notes and beer notes.) This, of course, gives rise to the question of what a barleywine is, and leads us down the peril-filled path of stylistic definition, but that is a topic best left for another day and another post. Suffice to say that, for me, at least, the beer I was tasting was more a barrel-aged old ale than a barleywine.
About the winner, there was no controversy. Alaskan Brewing 2007 Big Nugget Barleywine was a stand out from the word go, with notes of bourbon, vanilla, caramel, toffee, raisins and other dried fruit in the nose and a big, bold but balanced body of all of the above along with a bit of smoky char, bigger fruit and a rising, drying hoppiness that brought the taste to a lovely, warming conclusion.
Coming in second place was Speakeasy Brewing 2006 Old Godfather, which I personally thought had a gorgeous aroma but a bit too much apparent sugar in the body, while third place was taken by Elysian Brewing‘s 2006 Cyclops, a fruity and soothing ale that made an impression from the very first sip.