A few weeks ago, we got very lucky. Not only did we manage to snag a bottle of the 2009 Widdershins Barleywine, newly released from Left Hand Brewing Company, but we also stumbled across an old bottle of the 2007 Widdershins lurking at the back of a shelf. A vertical tasting was most definitely in order!
The idea of aging beers is a relatively new concept to us and a lot of other folks. Most beers should really be consumed within about a year of bottling, after which the flavor and structure of the beer quickly start to degrade. But some beers, particularly high-alcohol beers, age well and can even improve over the course of several years. (We'll be talking a lot more about this over the next few months!)
The Widdershins Barleywine from Left Hand Brewing Company is a perfect candidate for aging. It clocks in at about 9.1% ABV, and if it's kept cool and out of the light, we were told that it can continuing improving for several years before it peaks.
The 2007 batch and the 2009 batch were made using the same basic recipe of hops, grains, water and yeast. They were also both aged for about 8 months in the barrel and additional wort was added during bottling to give it some carbonation. The biggest difference between the two was that the 2007 was aged in French oak red wine barrels while this year's batch was aged in Heaven Hill Brandy barrels.
2009 Widdershins Barleywine
Appearance - Copper colored and a bit hazy with a thin head of pale foam.
Aroma - Our first impression was of plump, juicy raisins. It might have been the power of suggestion, but we thought the beer also picked up a bit of boozy brandy from the barrel aging. It smelled pleasantly mild and fresh.
There was also a distinct and somewhat puzzling whiff of plastic. One of the tasters described it as "GI Joe action figures." Maybe a characteristic from the hops?
Taste - That plastic aroma carried over into a quick flick of flavor at the front, which then mellowed into sticky toffee malts and steeped raisin flavors. It finishes resiny and very bright. It has a medium-bodied mouthfeel and not much lingering quality.
All in all, this barleywine tastes a lot like a high-alcohol IPA. We thought was a bit brash and unruly - definitely drinkable, but not as complex or refined as we were expecting.
2007 Widdershins Barleywine
Appearance - Honey-brown and quite cloudy with a nice tight head of eggshell foam. It clings to the glass like wine.
Aroma - Simply put, this beer smelled intoxicating. The aroma was so huge you can almost taste it in your mouth when you breath in, like biting into chewy caramels. We smelled brown sugar and raisins with a yeasty sour tang.
Taste - There was a pleasant smokiness at the front, like burnt sugar but less bitter (possibly the progression of that bitter plastic flavor in the 2009?). This led into complex layers of maltiness - we tasted molasses and buttery caramel with stewed fruit showing up as the beer warmed. Rich and full of flavor.
There was also a uniform bitterness throughout that balanced the malts very nicely. It ended with some tannins and more of that nice, lingering bitterness. The beer felt creamy, thick, and chewy in the mouth.
It was great to sip this one slowly and discover new nuances of flavor as it warmed up. This definitely felt like a mature, well-crafted beer.
If the 2007 is any indication, we should all buy a few bottles of this year's batch and let them sit in the closet for a while! The 2009 is decent and can certainly be enjoyed right now, but the aged 2007 really blew us away. The Widdershins strikes us as a beer that needs a little time to come into its own and reveal how special it really is.
Have any of you tried the Widdershins - either recently or in years past? What did you think?
Related: The Real Truth About Skunked Beer
(Images: Emma Christensen)