Some beers are just meant to rest for a while. That became immediately apparent in last night’s Paste Vertical Beer Tasting at Wild Heaven Craft Beers in Avondale Estates, Ga. We poured eight different years of Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot for our expert beer tasters, from 2007 to 2014, to see how each batch of the seasonal barleywine held up over time.
Not everyone has the patience and discipline to buy and save the same beer for eight consecutive beers, but I can tell you the payoff of a vertical tasting is well worth…having a friend with that kind of patience and discipline. The beers had been cellared in the home of Nick Purdy, co-founder of both Paste and Wild Heaven, since their purchase each of the last seven years (Sierra Nevada releases a new batch of Bigfoot every January). He kept them at a cool temperature out of the light and shared them with our panel of seven tasters (including Wild Heaven brewer Eric Johnson and Paste movies editor Michael Dunaway). Here are our composite reactions to each year:
The youngest of our beers is also the harshest. The hops that the West Coast brewer is known for still completely overpower any flavor from the malts. All the edges are still jagged even six months after purchase. Pours a dark amber, very similar to most of the older beers. Not a bad beer, but not nearly as good as it’s going to be.
What a difference a year makes. The 2013 is much smoother and more complex. The malts hold up well against the subtler hops. If you have a few 2013s in your cellar and you’re getting impatient, we can recommend you go ahead and open one of the bottles and enjoy. Similar in color to the 2014.
Somehow, this is the worst of the bunch. It pours much darker than any except the 2007, but even blind, we’d swear the malt recipe was different this year with more black malts. There’s a noticeable astringency in the finish. Not sure how this beer would continue to age, but it’s currently in the terrible twos.
The 2011 is markedly better than its younger brother. The malts are much tastier balancing brighter citrus flavors. It’s shocking how differently these first four beers taste from one another.
We’re also convinced that the hops in the 2010 are different from the hops in the 2011. This is the smoothest, most well-balanced bottle we opened, and my favorite of the bunch. I want to get my hands on another bottle of 2010.
Gone are the bitter hops, but the malts give the 2009 plenty of complexity on their own. Honey, molasses and dark fruit add up to gigantic flavor in this dessert-like beer. The second best beer of the bunch.
Very similar to the 2009, but more roasty barley and Vienna malt flavors give it a breadier taste with chocolate and cherry notes. There’s a bitterness here, but it’s well-balanced and still super-smooth on the front end.
This is the darkest beer, pouring a deep maroon, and sadly it’s due to oxidation. Sierra Nevade used screw tops prior to 2008, and the cap couldn’t withstand seven years of air. There’s a noticeable astringency to the beer. But you can taste the sherry and prune flavors, and it’s still delicious in its own flawed way.
We tasted the same line-up (minus the 2014) last December, and the consensus favorite then was the 2009. So five years of cellaring seems to be the sweet spot for this beer. If you have a 2010 or older version of Bigfoot, now is the time to reap the rewards of your investment. If you have anything newer, just be patient. The complex flavor of the aged barleywine is well worth the wait.