Every so often a beer emerges from the Solitary Series--like a solitary bee emerging from its nest at the beginning of summer--making an appearance for a brief season before fading into history. This summer that beer is a re-examination of a traditional English barleywine. We disassembled the style, with each flavor pulled apart, inspected separately, amplified, and reassembled into a new form that displays our Northwest heritage.
When we look at a barleywine, the central element is always the malt. But "malt character" is never a monolith, rather a mosaic of flavor, and simplifying what barley imparts to a fine barleywine down to a couple descriptors is a herculean effort of oversimplification. Thankfully we're up to it: brown-sugar and crackers.
With a big beer like this, there's generally more residual sweetness--complex sugars that the yeast are unable to consume. Barleywine is based on fine pale ale malts, toasted to a richer hue than say a German pilsner malt, so the sweetness comes across here as very similar to brown sugar. If a little is good, then more must be better, so we keep stretching this barleywine to its limits, pushing what was traditionally a 8%-9% ABV beer up to the 10% mark.
But as we know, English malts display more depth than just sweetness. One of their most salient qualities is often a grainy, "biscuity" kind of flavor. Now don't get your Bisquik in a bunch, this biscuititude is not your basic buttermilk breading. In England the word "biscuit" describes the things we know here in the US as "crackers". In order to turn this flavor up to 11, we augmented the pale ale malt with an American "biscuit"-style malt known as Victory, mostly because of the flavor, but also mostly because of the name.
Wiring this all together into a beer is the magic of fermentation. English yeast is known to contribute a fruit-like quality to beers--apple or pear in lighter styles or plum and fig in darker beers--that provides a fascinating counterpoint to the grain. We're brewing our own American-style version, so we're using our own American yeast which produces a cleaner fermentation and less fruit character than its English cousins. Instead we reach for some Oregon-grown blackberries to fill that role. The nice thing about using actual blackberries is that they also contribute a mild acidity that cuts the heaviness of a traditional barleywine--most often served by the thimble-full in dreary English dens--to inject some liveliness more appropriate for your favorite Pacific Northwest patio.
As we dissect, enhance, and reintegrate these qualities, our Six-Milion Dollar Man of a beer has transformed King Arthur into Optimus Prime, building a modern legend from the bones of our zymurgical forebears. Bigger, brighter, stronger. Plus if you drink the beer it tastes pretty good too.