Tuesday, February 21, 2006

It comes but once a year...

By day three, 19 of the 50 taps had been drank empty. Stories of intensely bad hangovers circulated, and the temperature was dropping. Beyond that, a snafu at the bread bakery rendered the only source of anti-hangover sustenance, Rosemunde Sausage Grill, closed for the night. But still, we plowed onward into the night to experience yet another Toronado Barley Wine Festival. Of course, I've already made enough of an ass of myself taking photos in that bar, so this report will have to rely on artist renderings.

Accosted by the "I've had
everything on this list" guy.

Thanks to 3-ounce tasting glasses, one can conceivably move quite swiftly through the list of 31 barley wines still available, and it was obvious that many folks were trying their very best. Of course, one might recognize the severe spare tire damage one could do if one were to do the math: 3 oz. x 4 = 12 oz. 1 regular beer = 4% alcohol, whereas 1 barley wine = 12% alcohol. Therefore, 4 x 3 oz. barley wine = 3 x 12 oz. regular beers. 39 x 3 oz. barley wines = gonzo freakin' mayhem.
As usual, the kindly folks at the bar had jukebox crosshairs centered squarely on metal, with the typical mission of ridding the place of all but the most hardy of beer hunters - unfortunately, the joy of being surrounded with kindred spirits and great libations resulted in a unusual amount of what could only be called "rocking out". Amazingly, we were able to keep our editorial focus and pay attention to at least a little of what we got to sample.

I hope being exposed to Alice in
Chains this loud isn't ruining my
chances to ever have kids.

First off, I have to disagree with the guy who found out I had a pen and decided to keep coming back to our table whenever he wanted to make notes on his tasting sheet and proclaimed Unita the hands-down winner. While it may have some secrets to reveal once it's aged a bit, it currently tasted a bit one-dimensional in its bitterness. Of the ones we sampled, "Alexander Gunn", by San Francisco Brewing Company really caught our attention with its subtlety and nuance - two words that haven't been used often to describe barley wines, I imagine. (In fact, we all noted the high level of quality across the board, something we attributed to the experience of being pitted against each other in competition for so many years now. If you find that you started liking barley wine recently, you probably owe a bit of thanks to Toronado for giving these brewers the opportunity to raise the bar.)

My years of racetrack
betting finally paid off.

"Hops on Rye", by the Carlsbad outlet of Pizza Port, was a nice example of a brew that stretches the definition of what barley wine can be. Lighter, somewhat oily and bready, it was miles from the cloying and hop-bitten barley wines of the past. In fact, the appearance of some bourbon barrel-aged and biscuit malt-mashed specimens showed that there's a new breed of experimentation in the style - and for the better, too.
Lastly, we saw the return of a favorite from last year, Deschutes' "Mirror Mirror", which is essentially a doubled batch of their classic pale ale, Mirror Pond. It's a classically balanced West Coast ale that just happens to deliver twice of what you're expecting with every sip in terms of body, resinous hops, and grainy maltiness, kind of like drinking it through a magical beer hat. All in all, it was worth the mediocre burrito. And by now those barley wines are gone. And the sun's come back out, and soon it will be Belgian beer month all over again - the cycle of life continues.


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