Ever since my first bottle on my twenty-first birthday, Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot barley wine has been one of my favorite beers. One of the original American barley wines, it’s a great mix of rich malt and fruity, pungent, and bitter hops. Bigfoot is a very hoppy beer, but has all the rich caramel-laden malt that you would expect out of a barley wine, especially when it has some age on it. Bigfoot ages with the best of them, and a year or more in the cellar truly proves the robustness of this beer. My First experience with aged Bigfoot was last year when I had the 2004 vintage on tap at Rose and Crown in Palo Alto. Even at five years old, it was still a bitter and hoppy beer, surprising me with its remaining hop character and brightness in general. Hops are fragile, and their aroma and flavor in beer diminishes with age. Aroma is the most volatile component and drops out first, with the bitterness that the hops contribute sticking around for much longer, though still softening with time.
Some time after the release last year, I stashed a six-pack of the 2009 vintage to save for a few years. A few nights ago I decided to break one out to compare side-by-side with the fresh 2010 Bigfoot that just came out. The 2009 vintage was already showing plenty of mellowing. I’ve been storing the six-pack in my closet “cellar” that hovers around the low sixties–not the ideal temperature for aging (which is between somewhere in the fifties and the thirties depending on what you want out of it and who you’re talking to) but it does have the effect of accelerating the aging process versus storing the beer a fridge temps.
The beers look very similar in the glass, with the only difference being more head retention in the newer vintage. This is likely because hop-oils aid in head retention, anx the aged sample will have lost much of it’s hop oil content to degradation at this point. Both display a very lightly hazed but glowing dark amber color with red highlights.
The aroma is where the year of age makes its biggest impression. The fresh bottle is bursting with pineapple, sap, and grapefruit from the hops, while the aged bottle has a much more subtle hop bouquet. In its stead, rich caramel and dried fruit from the malt and alcohol come to the fore. The bright fruit from the hops has definitely already receded.
The flavors are somewhat more similar than the aromas, with less bitterness and richer malt in the aged bottle, but less juicy hop flavor as well. The flavor has definitely rounded out in the last year, with some of the roughness from the hops and substantial alcohol content having dissipated. Both beers are a fine drinking experience, and it is hard to pick a winner at this point. Bigfoot is one of the easiest drinking American barley wines out there, with great balance between the substantial malt, hops, and alcohol. If you are craving a fresh hop aroma and tropical fruit accent, fresh is your Bigfoot. If it is rich malt sweetness and dried fruit complexity, though still with a significant hop component that you feel like, I encourage you to try aging some Bigfoot for a year or more. I plan on stashing away a few bottles every year from now on and tasting them side-by-side each year to see how well it ages for several years to come. I have heard rumors of great bottles with up to ten years or more of age on them, and I hope to find out for myself if this is true. The journey is at least half the fun if you ask me.