Saturday, March 12, 2011

My Experience At Brouwer's 9th Annual Hard Liver Barleywine Festival

Yesterday I attended Brouwer's Cafe's 9th Annual Hard Liver Barleywine Festival. It was packed to the gills, as usual, but I made sure I got there early. I know from past experience how fast Brouwer's can fill up during Hard Liver. It's a good thing I did too because, even in the pouring rain, the event, which started at 11:00AM, already had nearly 20 people in line by 9:30AM! I guess next year, I need to get there even earlier.

When the doors opened, they only let a few people trickle in at a time. Brouwer's is usually already 3/4 or more full when the doors open for Hard Liver. This is because of the judges, who arrive and begin their judging around 9:00AM. So, seating can be slim pickings for the general public once the doors open.

Once I made it in the door, just a few minutes after 11:00AM, I spotted a single open seat at the bar. I was attending this year's Hard Liver alone, since the two people who were going to attend with me had to cancel. So I made a beeline for the bar seat, praying that it's occupant wasn't just in the bathroom. But no; I was in luck! I got the LAST bar seat, and within minutes they stopped letting people in from the line outside. They would have to keep waiting out in the pouring rain until some of the judges or other patrons started leaving. For me that definitely wouldn't be anytime soon.

After getting settled at the bar, I began looking over the tap list, and writing down the tap numbers for those I wanted to try on the tasting note sheet I'd brought with me. I usually bring my own paper for tasting notes, since the tap list provides very little space for note taking.

Here are my impressions for each barleywine I was able to try (in alphabetical order):

Anderson Vallley Horn of the Beer '09 - Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Boonville, CA:
-Excellent head retention and lacing throughout.
-Light/Clear amber color.
-Light hop nose.
-Excellent balance - just a bit on the hoppy/bitter side.
-Very smooth and full bodied.

Big Time Bill's Bearded Wonderfulness '09 - Big Time Brewing Company, Seattle, WA:
-Medium head retention. Light lacing.
-Medium amber color.
-Flowery hop nose.
-Nicely hoppy. Good bitterness but still well balanced.
(Note: Big Time's barleywine is usually called 'Old Wooly'. This year was a bit special, since Bill Jenkins is leaving as head brewer at Big Time this month.)

Black Raven Old Birdbrain '09 - Black Raven Brewing Company, Redmond, WA:
-Poor head retention. No lacing.
-Light amber color.
-Hoppy but also sour nose.
-Slightly sour/winey/cidery.
-Not very hoppy.
-Light body.

Dick's '05 - Dick's Brewing Company, Centralia, WA:
-Decent head retention. Some lacing.
-Amber color.
-Very light nose.
-Slightly sour/puckering (a bit cidery).
-Slight warming.

Dogfish Old School '10 - Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Milton, DE:
-Poor head retention. Slight lacing.
-Very light amber color.
-Winey/cidery & slightly astringent.
-Not hoppy.

Firestone Abacus '11 - Firestone Walker Brewing Company, Paso Robles, CA:
-Decent head retention and lacing.
-Deep amber color.
-Woody/malty nose.
-Caramel and very pleasant light cognac notes.
-Not very hoppy.

Hair of the Dog Doggie Claws '10 - Hair of the Dog Brewing Company, Portland, OR:
-Poor head retention. Almost no lacing.
-Medium dark amber color.
-Slightly fruity nose.
-Slightly fruity/sweet.
-Very light hops/bittering.
-Slight cognac notes.

Lagunitas Gnarleywine '10 - Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma, CA:
-Good head retention and lacing.
-Light amber color.
-Hoppy nose.
-Good balance.
-Slightly husky/grainy.

Marin Old Dipsea '10 - Marin Brewing Company, Larkspur, CA:
-Medium head retention. Decent lacing.
-Dark amber color.
-Slightly cidery nose.
-Pleasant Belgian and bananna notes. Estery/fruity.
-Not very hoppy / slightly sweet.

Moylan's Old Blarney '10 - Moylan's Brewing Company, Novato, CA:
-Medium head retention. Some lacing.
-Amber color.
-Hoppy nose.
-Nice hop flavor/bitterness.
-Slighgtly astringent.
-Slight warming.

Ninkasi Critical Hit '10 - Ninkasi Brewing Company, Eugene, OR:
-Good head retention. Nice lacing.
-Medium amber color.
-Very light nose.
-Medium hop flavor/bitterness.
-Slightly 'grapey' (not quite winey).
-Slight warming.
North Coast Old Stock Ale '10 - North Coast Brewing Company, Fort Bragg, CA:
-Good head retention. Nice lacing.
-Medium amber color.
-Light body.
-Slight 'band aid' flavor (Phenolic).
-Not very hoppy.

Speakeasy Old Godfather '09 - Speakeasy Ales & Lagers, San Francisco, CA:
-Medium head retention. Some lacing.
-Medium amber color.
-Hoppy nose.
-Good hop flavor/bitterness.
-Slight cognac notes. Very pleasant.
(Note: I had this one at Beveridge Place Pub's Barleywine Bacchanal. It was one of my favorites from that fest. so I decided to have a little more!)

Victory Old Horizontal '10 - Victory Brewing Company, Downingtown, PA:
-Excellent head retention and lacing.
-Very good balance.
-Good hop flavor.
-Slight musty 'old sock' flavor (undesirable).

Out of the nearly 60 barleywines Brouwer's had on tap yesterday, I was able to try 14 of them. Not too shabby. My favorite from the ones I tried was Anderson Valley Horn of the Beer '09. It was exceptionally smooth and well balanced, and very easy to drnik. I'd have to give my personal 2nd and 3rd places to Speakeasy Old Godfather for #2 and Firestone Abacus '11 for #3.

The official winners of the festival, as announced at Brouwer's at around 2:00PM, were:
1. Anacortes Old Sebastes '10 - Anacortes Brewery, Anacortes, WA.
2. Anderson Valley Horn of the Beer '09 - Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Boonville, CA.
3. Glacier Brew House Old Woody '10 - Glacier Brewhouse, Anchorage, AK.

Unfortunately, by the time the winners were announced, I'd already just about had my fill. So, I was only able to try one out of the three 'official' winners, but I'm OK with that. The festival was an amazing experience, as always, and I got to try some truly World Class barleywines.

So, if you're local to Seattle or can get here in mid to late march next year, I urge you to check out the annual Hard Liver Barleywine Festival at Brouwer's Cafe. You won't regret it! Just be prepared to get in line early or to have to wait a bit before you can get in.

Drink responsibly and stay safe out there!


  1. Anacortes' Barley Wine is actually called "Old Sebastes". It was misprinted on Brouwers' draft list. How embarrassing.

  2. I thought that sounded off - but I went with that they had listed (Since Big Time's "Old Wooly" was listed as "Bill's Bearded Wonderfulness" this year). So I wasn't sure if they'd made a change. lol