Over the past couple of days I've tried a couple of beers from a very respectable brewer. I'm not sure of his full name, so lets just call him Mikkeller.
The two beers in question were a couple of barley wines from the same man; Big Worse and Big Worst. Big Worse was a good ol' fashioned Barley wine coming in at 12% (yes I think that's good ol' fashioned!) and Big Worst which was a Bourbon Barrel Aged Barley Wine coming in at 19.1%! (beers easy to get confused with each other, until you drink them of-course)
I've not done any sort of 'scientific online research' into why these beers had such a massive % difference. I just postulate that the brewer brewed them this way. (If you have an actual answer - answers on a blogcard.)
Let us begin the ode with Big Worst;
To begin with, these beers came from the Grove. A pub better than a 4 leafed clove..... ok that's enough rhyming. This was an epic beer. Probably good enough to fit into my 'Perfect beer' category. From the looks it was like staring a brown soupy pond in the face, it was thick and uninviting. I got a huge wave of obvious bourbon and sweet alcoholic caramel aromas coming forth from my outrageous snifter. I thought, treacle, tar, honeycomb and a face full of wood.
To taste was to delve into a world of beasts and monsters. It was a massively woody beer, as I sat there the scents and flavours took me back to my favorite childhood forest. It was very sweet, you get an initial big bourbon alcohol burn, which develops into a complex oaky sweet, tree sappy, sugary naturalist beverage, then the alcohol slaps you in the face and reminds you that your sitting in front of a computer. It didn't taste overly hopped, and there was not much bitterness, but with the caramel apple, mead like qualities, this drink was pushed well above the boundaries of what makes a beer.
There was small hints of orange and citrus zest, the honeycomb sweetness was almost intoxicating. I was almost finished when I started longing for rich foodstuffs to pair the beer with. But as with all the greats in life, it was a fleeting experience :(
The next day brought the Big Worse;
After having yesterdays beast I had high hopes for this brew. I must admit though, I had tasted the manner and had been left with all beverages henceforth failing to hit the mark.
Don't get me wrong, this was another great beer, aromas abounded of caramel biscuits, treacle, molasses, rich dried fruits, toffee, pure liquor and a woody essence. It had a great body, huge caramel initial sweetness and a really drying/dusty woody aftertaste, but there was just a little something lacking. It could have used just a bit more carbonation, and the body was slightly thin, but it did remind me of some old English B.W's that I've tried in the past. It was intensely warming, but surprisingly the alcohol% was well masked, and there was a good dose of piny bitterness creeping back up the throat after the swallow.
So what can I take away from this short but sweet comparison? I did come into it thinking that barrel aging didn't really matter. That if a brewery/brewer was so good at making beer, it wouldn't really matter how a beer was conditioned, because it would be great either way. This was a bit of an eye opener though, these two beers were massively different, but strangely similar on a sort of level. You could argue that the difference was due to the % difference, but I argue that it was purely due to the 4 month aging in a bourbon barrel. Who knows, someone may tell me there 2 completely different beers, but I'd find that difficult to believe having tried both of them. (and the only difference on the label being a single letter and a pair of sunglasses)
But they were different. One definitely came out on top. I think it's obvious which did.
To barrel age or not to barrel age, that is the question.