Barleywines are "the strongest of beers", according to Garrett Oliver's trusty "Oxford Companion to Beer". While not quite brewed to strengths approaching actual wine, barleywines can reach 10 percent alcohol by volume or more. The style has roots in British tradition but has become a winter regular for American craft brewers.
There are many variations on the style, but in general, these highly-alcoholic ales tend toward the sweeter side. For that reason, and after years of peppering my palate with bitter IPAs, the style is not a personal favorite. Double IPAs, whose ABVs can sometimes approach 9 percent or more but aren't so cloying, better represent the kinds of beers I like to drink.
So along comes Avery Brewing's Hog Heaven, a barleywine by name weighing in at 9.2 percent ABV but packing 104 IBUs (international bitterness units). It's that last number that catches your eye, a number that many very bitter IPAs don't even approach. So what's going on here?
The bottle description of Hog Heaven reads, "Or is it hop heaven? This dangerously drinkable garnet beauty was designed to satisfy the most zealous of hop devotees. Intense bitterness and the dankest of dry-hopped aromas are intertwined with a rich caramel candy-like malt backbone."
Hog Heaven pours a reddish amber with a big dirty brown head. It smells like a fragrant, citrus-y IPA, but I also get brown sugar and biscuits.
Take a sip and the first thing you notice is the mouthfeel, thick and chewy like a barleywine should be. The flavor, however, is more about pine and bitter hop resin than caramel and brown sugar. The hops really balance the sweetness of the style; do they go so far as to alter it? I'm immediately reminded of Avery's Maharaja double-IPA. That beer is brewed with Columbus, Cascade, Centennial, and Chinhook hops. Hog Heaven is brewed with all Columbus hops, but both brews are heavily hopped and heavy on your tongue.
So what is this beer exactly, a sweetish-barleywine or a hoppy-double IPA? IPAs are big business, the fastest growing craft beer style according to the market research firm GuestMetrics. Would it be better to market this brew as a double-IPA? Style definitions are changing all the time, which might not matter much for the beer drinker but are interesting to think about nonetheless.
-- Long Trail Brewmaster Dave Harmann and John Holl, author of "The American Craft Beer Cookbook", will host a seminar at the Mohegan Sun Winefest on Fri. Jan. 24 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Attendees will be lead through a five course tasting and pairing event
featuring a Grafton Village Cheese Course. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased here.