As I drown my sorrows following A&M's 49-42 loss to Alabama earlier today (really, the Aggies would be well night unstoppable had they even a mediocre defense) I realize there's no need to let a celebratory beer go to waste, even if it has become a defacto consolation beer. And tonight's specialty brew is Old Knucklehead, an American barleywine-style from Bridgeport Brewing in Oregon. I pour in my German glass beer mug, straight from the refrigerator. It pours a clear, coppery red. The head, light tan, is modest and subdued. Lacing is impressive.
First taste is all hops. There's no nuance here at all, like an out of control IPA. Very disappointing. But... I did pour it straight out of the refrigerator. Darker, heavier beers are not usually at their best when served below 50 degrees, so I let it set beside my desk as I work to finish my first piece of fiction since 2011. 2011? Has it really been that long? I'm afraid so. Egads, that's depressing. A steady stream of micro bubbles rise in the Knucklehead, which really is a pretty beer. The color is great. The carbonation is restrained. Despite the overwhelming hops, the mouthfeel is nice--very different from the thin feel of the Flemish sour ale I had last week.
Okay, so I just went and showered. Enough time has passed for the temperature of the brew to climb up above 60 degrees. The scent has improved with temperature. Floral hops still dominate, but now I'm picking up vanilla and some malt earthiness. A little old leather. Hmm. I taste. Wow. HUGE improvement from before. I know we're accustomed to drinking beer ice cold in this country, but with more complex, higher alcohol beers should be treated more like a red wine and allowed to breathe and served a few degrees below room temperature to let their flavors come out. There's definite vanilla from the oak, earthy flavors, a hint of rum as well. The profile of the hops is much more subdued now, balanced much more nicely by the other flavors. Mouthfeel, which was good when cold, is even better now. The high alcohol content isn't obvious at first, but makes itself known with a definite warming of the back of the mouth and throat. The warmer it gets, the more a mellow, caramel-like profile emerges. Not sweet and malty like the dark Belgians I like, but interesting nonetheless. I'm not noticing much, if any, fruit overtones at all.
I've had better barleywines, but damned if I can remember which ones they were, I have the type so rarely. Knucklehead is a solid contender, though, if served at warmer temperatures. The caramel and oak are really coming on strong now, and the hops that were so overpowering at first are now doing a good job keeping everything nicely balanced. This isn't a beer I'd drink every day, but if you're looking for a barleywine to sample to familiarize yourself with the style, you could do far worse than Knucklehead.
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