Bend, Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery typifies the successes to be had in the craft beer scene. Since opening in 1988, their distribution has expanded across the country like an invading army of good taste, proffering high-quality examples of Northwest pale ales as well as spins on damn near every style worth trying. But they didn’t start experimenting with the more unexpected traditions of craft brewing until 2005, when they released the first in their Reserve Series, the Mirror Mirror Barley Wine.
This year, they’ve brought that pioneer back into rotation. Drawn from a double batch of their Mirror Pond Pale Ale, the Mirror Mirror is aged for 10 long months in a mixture of Oregon Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, and Malbec barrels to create one of the more complex barley wines you can find (…if you can find it, that is; their distribution, alas, has yet to reach across the entire country).
The brew uses English malts and an amalgamation of Cascade and Millennium hops to create a deeply layered, earthy beer. Yet despite the presence of these hops, Mirror Mirror leans toward the less bitter English variation of barley wine. It pours a deep caramel, backed by a deeper amber hue with a modest head. The soil and wood from the barrel aging announces itself on the nose, paired with touches of grapefruit and malt. At first sip, layers of sweetness—caramel, along with hints of vanilla, toffee, brown sugar—ride above a solid current of bready yeast. The wood then comes into play, holding hands with layers of fruit—slightly tart grapes and cherries that hint at its big 11.2% ABV, but without the alcohol dominating the conversation.
It’s a beer whose strength sneaks up on you, masked by more earthy elements of grass, straw, figs and dates. I yearned for a bit of barnyard Brett influence, but that would likely push the Mirror Mirror from reflecting the brewer’s intention. And, as the wax-sealed bottle indicates, this beer is a focused labor of love.
Brewery: Deschutes Brewery
City: Bend, Oregon
Style: English Barley Wine
Availability: Limited release in 750ML bottles (released in March 2014)