Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Olde School Barleywine

Dogfish Head
Milton, DE

Style: Barley Wine
ABV: 15.0%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Recommended)

Pair With:
Oh my.

I was wondering what type of introduction to write for my latest review, which is for Delaware-based Dogfish Head’s Olde School Barleywine. As you may have noticed, Nigel likes to get a little wordy in his reviews, with painfully long introductions that typically have little to do with the beer eventually followed by the actual review, which is usually much shorter than the introduction. This is a result of extensive market research and should not be blamed on my inability to get to the frickin’ point (though that is often a problem too). I’ve chatted with many readers who enjoy my reviews up to the point where I begin talking shop (typically they aren’t that big on craft beer), while true beer dorks often tell me I should shut the hell up and just review the damn beer. Consequently, I try to do both and thus offend each party equally.

Anyway, I’ll try to jump right in to this review this time since I just popped open the first bottle of Olde School from my four-pack, and the master suite in my apartment now wreaks of alcohol. This puppy is listed at a ridiculous 15% ABV, so I’m going to sip with caution and hope that I can make it through the review portion before passing out in my pile of Tostitos that I had to purchase in order to watch the Fiesta Bowl (my understanding of the college football bowl system is that in order to watch a specific bowl game, you must buy the products sold by the corporation that’s sponsoring them … here’s hoping next year’s Rose Bowl will be sponsored by Cialis). Should I not finish it before I become drunk and belligerent, I may face immediate termination as Eddie Glick has already given me two warnings and we abide by the three-strike rule here. Add to that the two tests for performance enhancing drugs that I recently failed, and I’m facing a lifetime ban in accordance to the newly instituted drug policy (hops/malt = acceptable; wine/spirits = banned).

As we know by now, Nigel is a hophead by day and a barleywino by night. While IPAs and other hop monsters are my first love, I’ve come to appreciate the overall complexity and the orgy of flavors that characterize a well made barley wine. This is something that developed over the past year, beginning with my sample of Sierra Nevada’s 2007 Bigfoot and followed by other selections from Sprecher, Flying Dog, Tyranena, and New Holland. One thing I noticed is that the flavors and aromas in barley wines can vary significantly, and the intricate process that goes into brewing them makes it a dangerous balancing act that can quickly cause a brew that’s on the verge of greatness to become nearly undrinkable. When I first sampled barley wines a couple of years ago, I found them offensive due to their thick, rich, and sweet nature, as well as the overabundance of alcohol. Despite having a more refined palate now than I did then, I still find them to possess those negative qualities on occasion and I’m hoping that Dogfish Head is able to avoid this. I have faith in the folks from Delaware (home of the Blue Hens), as DFH is one of the preeminent craft brewers in the country.

Olde School opens to a bit of haze and an overpowering aroma of sweet malt and alcohol; I wasn’t exaggerating when I said the smell engulfed the entire room upon opening. The aroma is a harbinger of things to come as it has some nice qualities, but is ultimately too strong for its own good. The pour is relatively lifeless, just as you would expect from a barley wine. A slight creamy head instantly evaporates, leaving virtually no trace throughout the session. A rich mahogany color, there is some mild carbonation and a good amount of sedimentation. The aroma in the glass is powerful and complex: sweet scents of sugary malt and dark fruit are at war with a very strong, somewhat unpleasant alcoholic stench that is a bit offensive and overpowering. It’s a pleasant aroma if you catch the right combination of ingredients, but it can also burn the nostrils, which makes you seriously reconsider taking another sip.

The flavor is much like the aroma in that it’s extreme and a bit schizophrenic. At times it’s a wonderful drink that’s both sweet and spicy, and at other times it burns your tongue into submission and gives you the dreaded scrunch face (sort of the craft beer version of Keystone’s “bitter beer face”). This is as complex a drink as you will find, as there are umpteen different flavors and they all hit with a vengeance at various times. The initial bite is from the rich, sweet, sugary malt which coats the tongue with flavors of caramel, molasses, and toffee. Next it’s the alcohol, and this is regrettably something that is present for the remainder of the drink and increases as the session progresses and the beer warms. Dark fruit is in abundance as well, mainly figs, raisins, and black cherry. If you catch this at the right time, it has an unfortunate flavor of Robitussin … not exactly what I’m looking for in a beer. The commercial description from Dogfish Head says that it has “Maris Otter pale ale malt and a blend of fine hops …” but there is too much alcohol to really taste much in the way of hops, not to mention pinpointing what variety they are. While barley wines are meant to be high in ABV, 15 percent is borderline insane, and it’s not well hidden. The aftertaste is strong, mainly from the figs and the alcohol, and by the end of the drink, when it’s approaching room temperature, it stings so much it makes your eyes water.

Ultimately this is a ballsy attempt at an already powerful style that ends up going overboard. I know “extreme” beer is the big thing right now, but I don’t understand why quality brewers try to get so cute and creative and turn what could be a tasty ale into something that is hard to drink. It took me about three hours to drink two of these, and overall it wasn’t terribly enjoyable. That’s not to say it’s a bad beer; on the contrary, it possesses many of the qualities I look for in a craft ale—it just ends up being too damn much. While I can’t really criticize Dogfish Head since I love the brewery, I will say I’m disappointed with Olde School. If they could tone it down just a tad, it could easily be in the top tier of craft barley wines. It’s worth a shot if you see it, but avoid it if you don’t like “extreme” beer: there’s no point in paying upwards of $15 for a four-pack of something you won’t be able to drink.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on January 7, 2008.
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