Over the past few months, Calgary pioneering craft brewery Big Rock has clearly been trying to re-establish some of its craft credentials, after many years of relying more on pale lagers and private label brewing. They have a few initiatives, which I have outlined briefly elsewhere, but one of the latest is their first-ever foray into barley wine. As the second release in their Alchemist Series (discussed here), Barghest Barley Wyne is a big risk for the Rockers to take, given their place in the market at the moment.
Aged for a year before bottling, they clearly took the process of creating a barley wine seriously. The packaging also shows their serious intent. It comes in a 275 ml bottle packed in a black box. The cap is waxed in a most impressive fashion. The bottle is clear (oops) but since it is in a black box, that should pose too many problems. Only 3000 bottles were produced and each bottle is numbered. At 9.5%, it is likely the biggest beer Big Rock has ever brewed.
I got a bottle shortly after its release (number 72, for the record). After having it sit in my cellar for a few weeks, I finally got around to opening it the other night.
It pours ruby reddish-brown with slight haze and almost no head at all. Lightly carbonated. Initial aroma gives off rich toffee, caramel, hints of milk chocolate and some nuts. I also pick up touches of raisins and an almost imperceptible vanilla sweetness. Okay, this has me intrigued at this point.
I sip and find rich, sweet toffee, notes of raisin and other fruity character. The initial presentation is quite sweet. Dark fruit, mostly cherry and plum, and earthy notes fill out the middle. The beer begins to sharpen and thin out in the finish. There is an odd tangy quality to the finish, almost acidic and with a carbonic bite. Hard to pin down exactly what that comes from, but it throws off the linger.
I warmed up to the beer as the glass emptied – I found myself appreciating the dark fruit character and the fact that it isn’t too cloying (as many barley wines can be). Not as complex as some of my favourite barley wines, but that may be an unfair comparison (it is like saying X hockey player isn’t as good as Gretzky, because my favourite barley wines really are world beaters). If they were to brew it again, I would urge them to aim for a more multi-layered malt profile. Give me more to chew on as I sip. However, I think lots of people who find barley wines too sweet and thick might prefer this option.
It is not a perfect barley wine, but it is nothing to be ashamed of either. It is better than what I have been able to pull off at home, barley wine-wise, so that says something. In general I feel positively about this effort, both because as a beer it can stand on its own, but also because it really suggests that Big Rock is serious about finding its roots once again. And that can only be a good thing for beer drinkers.