Brewery: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Style: American Barleywine
ABV: 9.6 percent
They called me crazy. You're wasting your time, they said. You'll never find it, they said. But I always believed, and my desperate search finally paid off.
I found Bigfoot.
Though, to be honest, it wasn't really all that hard. Sierra Nevada produces quite a bit of their popular barleywine every winter, as well they should -- the brew's taken home gold at the Great American Beer Festival in 2005, 1995, 1992, 1988 and 1987. Bittered with Chinook hops, finished with Cascade and Centennial varietals, then dry-hopped with a blend of all three, Bigfoot's a 90-IBU beast with a flavor as big as the gentle wood ape for which it's named.
Equally massive is the brew's caloric payload -- about 300 calories per 12-ounce bottle. For this reason, Bigfoot's often cited in health magazines as a beer to avoid, to which I'll only say this: If a few extra carbs are enough to turn you off, craft beer probably isn't the hobby for you. The experience of drinking a glass is worth the extra exercise.
You'd think a beer named after a hairy, mythical beast would be ugly, no? Pour Bigfoot into a tulip or snifter and you'll see that all those grainy pictures have been hiding something: he's a looker. A plethora of shades are visible, from light orange to deep crimson to dusky amber -- it's like looking into a tiger's eye stone. The frothy tan head that sits atop the liquid has the consistency and retention of ocean foam, receding to about half its size before settling in for the night. Beautiful.
There exist two major families of barleywine: English and American. While examples brewed using British methods are decidedly malt-forward, American barleywines showcase the brash, biting hops found stateside. From first whiff, it would seem Bigfoot makes its home in a U.S. hop grove. The nose is packed with so much bright citrus -- lemons, orange, grapefruit -- it almost edges on IPA hoppiness. Sweet caramel emerges upon closer inspection. The flavor is equally hop-heavy and so permeated with bitterness that the resin clings to the tongue and stings the nostrils. A honey-sweet, grainy character is the only indication you're not drinking a double IPA. Fruity red wine notes emerge as the brew warms, adding extra inches to the seven feet of flavor.
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Bigfoot is fantastic fresh, but those seeking a sensory adventure will want to lay a few bottles down to age. The brew ages beautifully, with the hops dropping off after the years and the sticky malt becoming ever more complex. True believers will also want to keep an eye out for the barrel-aged version of Bigfoot, rumored to be arriving on shelves later this year.
Food pairing suggestions:
Bigfoot will walk all over lesser dishes, so match it up with something equally giant in flavor. A rich, sugary chocolate mousse will provides an interesting contrast to the beer's overt hoppiness.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer.