Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Barley Wine

Sprecher Brewing Co.
Glendale, WI

Style: Barley Wine
ABV: 9.7%

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

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Let me begin this review with a quote from Nigel's beer-drinking idol, Barney from "The Simpsons" who, upon paying forty dollars for a tap of Duff during prohibition in Springfield, uttered the following: "Forty bucks? This better be the best beer I've ever had...". Well, unlike the Duff Barney consumed that day at Moe's, Sprecher's Barley Wine unfortunately is NOT the best beer I've ever had... not even close, honestly. While it doesn't quite reach the forty dollar level of a bootlegged Duff, it is nonetheless quite pricey. To be specific, Nigel forked over $14.99 for a liter (for those non-metric Beer Dorks, that's 33.8 ounces, or about two of Sprecher's trademark 16 oz. stubby bottles). Fortunately for Nigel, his Sugar Mama cashed in her piggy bank last week and I was able to rob her purse of $20, which got me a liter of Sprecher and the latest issue of Ginormous Jugs Magazine, with a quarter left over to get a Little Debbie snackcake. Life is good in Nigeland.

Fresh off of my euphoric experience with Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot Ale, which is now firmly in my all-time top 10, I was very eager to try Sprecher's attempt at this very difficult, but very rewarding brew. I justified my purchase by telling myself that $15 for a liter of Barley Wine is still cheaper than buying gas, and if Sprecher came close to matching the quality of Bigfoot, it would be money well spent. Sprecher's brews have always been enjoyable, but tend to fall short of making this an elite brewery. This could change however, as the Brewmaster's line, including Barley Wine, Russian Imperial Stout, Dopplebock, and Oak Bourbon Barrel Aged Scotch Ale and Barely Wine, may take this brewery to another level. Another interesting development is a couple of African-style ales, Mbege Ale and Shakparo Fire-brewed African Ale, both very different takes on craft beer that are new to the American brewing scene. While they still lack the super high quality staple brews to place themselves among the elite, give Sprecher a ton of credit for creativity.

The Sprecher Barley Wine I sampled was vintage 2006, so it wasn't exactly fresh from the brewery (which is a good thing). To Sprecher's credit, they suggest cellaring their Barley Wine for 1 to 5 years for the best results. I've found most breweries are unwilling to promote this, as they are all about making money now, so they want you to instantly guzzle it and rush out to buy more. I bought this chilled at the store, so I made sure I kept it as such until I was ready to indulge, upon which time I let the bottle sit out for about an hour, trying to get that 50-60 degree slightly chilled temp that Barley Wines are best served at. Sprecher's liters come in a distinctive dark blue bottle, with a resealable fliptop cap with gold tape over the top, making them easy to open, yet still tightly sealed to allow the Barley Wine to bottle condition as it ages.

A nice amount of air releases with the pop of the bottlecap, with a beautiful haze billowing up out of the neck (it was a fog that did indeed remind Nigel of those warm July days as a wee tot in Yorkshire). The beer pours nicely- perhaps a bit more carbonation than I was expecting, but it did settle quickly, as it should. A very dark golden brown in the glass, with a nice creamy trace that lingers along the side of the glass throughout. I drank this from a snifter-style glass, which is recommended for Barley Wines as it is the best way to get the most of all the aromas and flavors that come at you throughout the drink. Like any Barley Wine, it had very little bubbly action in the glass, as it is a heavier, "syrupy" type beer.

My first sign that this may not be as good as I had hoped was the aroma. While Barley Wines are loaded with both malt and hops, which should make for one of the most pleasantly aromatic brews out there, Sprecher had a very chemically smell to it, which was an instant turn-off. Some sweet sugary maltiness and mild frutiness is definitely noticeable, but there is far too much of that yeasty, high alcohol aroma that should be tempered in a fine brew. No trace of hops in the initial whiffs, which disappointed Sir Nigel.

The taste is far less offensive than the odor, though it could be better. Again, there is too much of that yeasty, bread-like flavor, and the alcohol is far too detectable (while it is 9.7% abv, a fine Barley Wine should cover that up). Nigel will chalk this up to the fact that this could- and likely should- be cellared longer, which would allow it to mellow with age. Heavy amounts of both caramel and pale malt are most noticeable, with a nice hop addition that adds some bitterness to the overall sweetness. Definitely on the sweeter end of the spectrum when it comes to Barley Wines, Sprecher has strong hints of caramel, molasses, and toffee, with fruity undertones of banana and pear. As a full-bodied, syrupy brew, it coats your tongue as it goes down, leaving a strong aftertaste. Clearly this is not a session brew, as no Barley Wine should be, but Nigel did drink his liter... slowly... over the course of an evening (it took me four hours).

All in all, I would certainly recommend this brew, but with a couple of warnings. First of all, you had best be willing to shell out some bucks, so I'd suggest getting a second job if you plan on drinking it on a regular basis. Secondly, and most importantly, be patient. If you have access to the proper storage facilities, cellar this for at least a year or two, and try it then. Unlike Bigfoot Ale, which is phenomenal right off store shelves, Sprecher clearly needs time to age, allowing the yeast to continue its duties in the bottle. Find a cool, dark place for storage, and come 2008 or 2009, you'll likely have a pretty damn fine brew. In the meantime, there are plenty of other brews out there to satisfy your cravings, so just relax, Beer Dorks, and have another beer.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on May 2, 2007.
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