Beer: Barrel-Aged Wee Heavy Brewery: AleSmith Brewing Co. Style: Scotch Ale/Wee Heavy ABV: 10 percent
'Twas a time, dear readers, when getting your hands on one of AleSmith's barrel-aged beers was a Very Big Deal. These bottles were among the rarest and most highly sought-after in all the land; those who possessed them were beer geek royalty. Today, they're available on the shelf for any peasant able to scrounge up $40. What an age we live in!
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The bourbon-soaked beauties waiting to be found come to us from AleSmith Brewing Co., a heralded beer-maker founded in San Diego in 1995. You've probably seen their large-format bottles before -- hoppy regulars such as X (a pale ale), IPA, and Yulesmith pop up regularly in 22-ounce containers; 750-milliliter seasonals -- like the aforementioned Old Numbskull barleywine, Wee Heavy and the coffee-laden Speedway Stout -- are somewhat harder to find but still appear. Absent, however, have been the versions of these beers that have spent time in oaken barrels.
So how did we get to the point at which we commoners can pluck a Barrel-Aged Old Numbskull or Wee Heavy off the shelf as easily as picking a flower? AleSmith, like many craft breweries, has experienced unprecedented growth in the past several years. The brewery's owner and brewmaster, Peter Zien, invested much of this extra income into expanding his barrel-aging program. Until recently, if you wanted these beers, you had to purchase them online during very short windows, then pick them up in person at the brewery. It would seem, however, that this last batch was large enough that even the online buyers couldn't completely wipe it out, and Phoenix, by felicitous circumstance, saw the results of the surplus. Score.
We'll focus today on Barrel-Aged Wee Heavy, but that doesn't mean you should ignore Barrel-Aged Old Numbskull -- the base beer beat out 54 other beers to earn a gold medal in the Barleywine category at the Great American Beer Festival's judging competition last October.
If malty beers are your thing, however, Barrel-Aged Wee Heavy should be right up your alley. The name of the base beer, Wee Heavy, was not thunk up by Alesmith's marketing crew, but is actually a common alias for a beer style called Scotch Ale -- itself a stronger, heavier version of a Scotland-born style called Scottish Ale. You may have seen these sweet, dark, richly malty beers labeled with numbers and symbols such as 60/-, 70/-, 80/- or 90/-. These are categories indicating the strength and quality of a Scottish ale based on the number of shillings it would've taken to purchase a keg of each beer in the 19th century. A lighter Scottish ale -- say, under 3.5 percent ABV -- would've cost 60 shillings, whereas a beer of more heft -- around 5 percent ABV, for instance -- would take 80 shillings to bring home. By those bygone standards, Four Peaks Kilt Lifter, at 6 percent ABV, would've been considered a 90-shilling Wee Heavy. Tastes have changed over the years, however -- today's Wee Heavies commonly boast alcohol percentages of 8 percent or more. Alesmith's version has an even 10.
Aged in bourbon barrels for at least one year, this beer is painted a deep maroon, dark yet fairly clear. There's not much head to speak of, and it disappears to become a very thin ring within a few seconds.
The nose is buttery, though not in the off-flavor sense. Rich, sweet aromas of toffee, butterscotch, caramel and burnt sugar swirl. Also included: earthy hops, bright figs, cola, alcohol, brandy, and oaky red wine.
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The flavor is So. Damn. Smooth. Bourbon, brandy, vanilla and new oak blend with touches of toffee and sticky alcohol. The heavy whiskey flavor is semi-harsh, but is balanced by brown sugar, maple and butter. The blend is incredible. Delivered to the tongue via a creamy, medium-full body smooth as velvet, this is a treat.
If I had to choose something bad to say about BA Wee Heavy, I'd say the barrels take over the base beer just a bit too much. But hot damn, this is a tasty brew. Sweet, oaky, bourbony, incredibly smooth and, now, attainable. Get it because it tastes good and because you can.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.