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Tasting Notes: Bourbon County Barleywine 2017

Barleywines are interesting beer styles. They are high in alcohol and thick and mouth-coating. Yet, they are not dark (at least too dark). Those new to craft beer often suffer the misconception that all dark beers are heavy and full of alcohol. Conversely, they think all lighter color beers are hoppy. Those things are often true, but not enough to be anything resembling a rule. Barleywines are one of the beers that confound that thought process. These beers are sometimes difficult to make well.

Goose Island has had an interesting time since its purchase by Anheuser-Busch InBev. First, the brewery took the brunt of craft beer enthusiasts fury who labeled them as sell-outs since they were the first ABI purchase. Then their flagship beer line, Bourbon County Stout, shipped with bottles infected by bacteria. This is a brewery that has forced into a lot of damage control.

Bourbon County Barleywine 2017
Photo by Ryan Moses

Since its introduction, Bourbon County Barleywine has often been seen as the ugly stepchild of the Bourbon County lineup. Barleywines have often been underappreciated by many in craft beer and all the sturm and drang surrounding Goose Island and their corporate ownership has not helped.

This is a good version of an English barleywine. It hits all the notes of being a barleywine. The color is a dark amber/copper color almost brown. Then the aroma is a dominated by dark fruit and a combination of sherry and leather. There is also a good amount of caramel and a floral hop presence lurks underneath.

When you taste it, the alcohol is noticeable. This is helped along by the aging in bourbon barrels. Additionally, the barrels lend the bourbon qualities of caramel and touch of vanilla. That is where many people turn on this beer. Barleywines and old ales, when done right, have a lot of character on their own and to add bourbon barrel aging to them can push some drinkers past their comfort level. Besides the bourbon notes, you get all the rest of what a good barleywine provides: molasses, sherry, and a hint of leather. That can be a lot going on in any beer.

This is a sipper. It hides its 14.4% ABV well, but it is also a luscious mouth-coating, warming beer. It should be shared with friends and paired with food. Some food pairing suggestions are a traditional pot roast, a hefty pasta with a vodka sauce, or a date and ginger scone with a marmalade drizzle.