A CONSIDERABLE AMOUNT has already been written here about Sierra Nevada’s estimable Bigfoot, covering both a well-cellared vintage and the recently-released barrel-aged bomber. But seeing as how barleywines improve with some age and this particular American paragon has existed for more than three decades, the opportunity for a vertical tasting was not to be missed. Not least when it was so comprehensive: 17 vintages strong, it dated back to 1995 absent only 1996 and 1997. Each was presented in 12 oz bottles, each year clearly marked on the familiar white crown with a blue foot. Several bottles in the middle of this tasting had twist-offs, but these vintages exhibited no more pronounced traits of decay, infection, or oxidation than the pry-off crowns more favored by craft drinkers. 2013, being so readily accessible and in a trifling attempt to minimize palate exhaustion, was skipped in favor of its older colleagues.
Broadly speaking, Bigfoot enjoys twin peaks—the first a few years back when its hop flavors have fully synthesized, and the second several years further on once the malts assume dominance and describe a port- or sherry-like profile. Thus Bigfoot can satisfy both American and English preferences, depending on its age. In either case it rewards patience. (This article, though long, will hopefully do the same. Perhaps you’d like to secure a pour for yourself before proceeding?)
At a year old Bigfoot could still easily pass as fresh. 90 IBUs will do that to a beer. Rounding out the critical specs are a 9.6% ABV (its level for nearly two decades now) and final Plato of 6. 90 IBUs are still very powerful by modern standards, but the latter two stats are considerably more mainstream or even tame by West Coast standards. Thus Bigfoot remains a sizeable force in 2014, albeit more for its complex maturation process and dense hop flavors than for new extremes in body or profound alcohol levels.
The ’12 vintage is still decidedly young, punching forward with a complex and as yet somewhat clamorous combination of hops—pine, herbs, earth, and menthol. Only three cultivars are used (Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook) each of which is classically American, but the overall impression here is far from the typical citric, fruity, resinous qualities. Generous malts fill up the body and ground the aroma with molasses and sweet marshmallows; caramel flavors seem to come more from a particularly long boil than any excessive use of crystal malts. In fact, with only 2-Row and caramel malts used Bigfoot has a deceptively simple (though no doubt prodigious) grain bill. The finish returns to earthiness and herbs in a constant swirl of flavors pushed on by light but well-dispersing carbonation. Alcohol warmth and a little slickness can be picked out, though the hops and carbonation both make it easy to overlook. An icon in its adolescence.
The initial aroma has a touch of something vegetal that fades fairly quickly. Thereafter the hops seem a little spicier than before, though altogether milder, allowing caramel malt and marshmallow toast to come forward more. The body is also beginning to feel condensed—not quite cloying, just more in line with a traditional barleywine’s almost savory density. A bit minty in the finish and carbonation still substantial.
The hop balance of power has shifted away from pine and towards earth, herbs, and mint. Malt flavors are less obviously caramelized and beginning to lean a little more towards dark fruit (bits of date, raisins). The carbonation, never especially robust, has begun to subside into a creamy pinprick that smooths out the finish with admirable subtlety. Still quite bitter in the finish in a straightforward manner not quite defined by any particular cultivar. Perhaps the peak age for those who enjoy matured hop dominance.
–The first vintage with a touch of perfume in its bouquet, joined by a milder leafiness that eases into the more familiar hop qualities from fresher years. Perhaps the first vintage where a single variant seems to be in the lead, that being Centennial. The mouthfeel is now also come together superbly: once strident hops have settled into a resinous stickiness, balanced by golden toast, some malt fruitiness in the midsection, a hint of winey tang, and a bitterness sitting more forward on the palate than on the back of the tongue. We have achieved Bigfoot’s first summit.
The first vintage where caramel plays a more significant role than the hops. Altogether sweeter like toffee and less bitter in the aroma and flavors. Still considerably piney, minty, and herbal, though, with these flavors sitting fairly far towards the finish without being the final impression. Carbonation having taken another step down likely accentuates the maltiness, but a finger of creamy head can still be swirled up, giving the finish a sneaky extra bit of bitterness and slight alcohol fume. That ABV is beginning to play a larger role in the texture and tingle of the finish, though none yet has seemed especially warming.
Virtually a repeat of 2008, just with a touch more herbal hops and the first clear impression of vanilla or cocoa powder in its texture. A finish of caramel and earthy hops, with pine now thoroughly in the back seat.
While all the Bigfoots had a similar coppery hue at this age they are beginning to seem a touch darker, likely due to the waxing presence of clouding sediment in the glass. Flavors now overcast with a leathery and faintly oxidized impression with mint growing late in the finish after a caramel density on the midpalate (again more the long boil variety than just malt selection). Carbonation is now quite subdued and the finish is fairly herbal. On its way to being a more European than American profile, albeit still considerably too bitter.
Hinted at in ’06 but here finally manifested, ’05 is the first that seems more like sherry than beer…y. Overall quite sweet, slightly vinous, minimally carbonated, and while still fairly bitter the hops are fully smoothed out into earthy herbal notes, fading into the finish sweetness of date and molasses.
The shift towards European barleywine is virtually complete in this second peak of maturity. Hops have receded dramatically, leaving the slow-playing flavors of sherry, a bit of oxidization, dark dried fruit, and a bit of vanilla to unfold over a milk chocolate smooth texture and decadent finish. The carbonation is very subtle, and in this vintage only does the water clarity come through to give a touch more refinement to the finish. Very classy.
Carbonation now hard to pull out aside from a little burst with the initial pour. An odd resurgence of herbal hops pushes the beer’s balance off a touch, as they don’t gel as clearly with the concentrated malt flavors as before. The finish is also cleaner and a bit lighter by way of the returned hints of menthol. Cloudiness and (to a lesser extent) sediment are a constant from hereon back.
That hop interval has passed, leaving flavors almost purely in the caramel malt realms of brown sugar, etc. Frankly a touch undistinguished in flavor, though the mouthfeel and texture are still satisfyingly rich.
The odd bump of hops from ’03 and the almost pure maltiness of ’02 find a better balance here, with mint kicking up a bit in the finish after a powerfully thick (but somewhat bluntly flavored) center. Carbonation an afterthought.
Our second virtual repeat, this time between ’00 and ’01. Strange in that it has a touch more percolating brightness in the mouthfeel, though one hesitates to really deem it carbonation. A slight bit of the earthy and minty hop qualities left—surprising that they outlasted the pine this long—which help contain some of the raisin and caramel malt flavors that might otherwise seep out too far into the finish. As if the malt maturity of 15 years have matched with the hops of eight years. In brief, what ’03 ought to have been.
Now all but still, showing only a touch of minerality like flattened soda water. A slight bit grainy and beginning to be sticky. Not too well organized but its flavors, though now beginning to mush a little between mostly earthy and herbal hops around a third in and malts everywhere else, are still articulate enough to carry it amidst this company.
Raisins are prominent here more so than any year following, also with light chocolate notes again in the texture and denser fig qualities in the finish. Lacking the minerality of ’99 (and any noteworthy carbonation), it remains surprisingly clear in its layers. A gentle booziness towards the end helps shave down the sweetness of the finish, not so much shortening as elevating it.
The end of the line. Also the only vintage sampled to have a 7.8% ABV, all others being 9.6%. This strength puts Bigfoot close to the territory of American IPAs, which are typically meant to be drunk as fresh as possible, so it’s remarkable that this diminished version has aged so well. Interesting, too, that alcohol warming is really only now beginning to be apparent. Otherwise caramel malts are still fairly strong, but sherry and a wee bit of vinegar provide their own contrast in lieu of hops, which gasp out only a bit of mintiness in the finish. Hard to call it bitter, though. Some oxidization is inevitable and has dampened the flavors all around, though rather less than was expected for its age. Faintly astringent and entirely matured. At this point nowhere left to go, and thus a fitting exit.