After being into craft beer for a few years, or a few days, folks often eventually want to age beer. When I decided to start cellaring beer I wasn’t sure what beer to start with. I felt like everything worth cellaring was rare or only sold in Belgium or California. Later I realized, thanks to Josh’s post about Tips on Cellaring Beer, that there were lots of “shelf” beers available to cellar. That is why I’ve decided to share a recent experience with everyone. The experience of a food and beer pairing featuring a 17 year Sierra Nevada Bigfoot vertical.
Background on Bigfoot
I’m thinking many people have had Sierra Nevada Bigfoot so I’m not going to do a full review of each year or even the current year. I’m instead focusing on the changes that we found over the years, this is after all the best part of doing a vertical tasting[footnote]Or so I thought beforehand[/footnote]. However, here’s a quick overview of what to expect from a fresh Bigfoot: notable presence of classic American hop flavors over a rich bready caramel malty body that does little to cover up a strong alcohol presence.
Having been first brewed in 1983 makes Bigfoot one of the first American barley wines up there with Anchor Old Foghorn from 1975. It’s gone on to be produced every year and win multiple awards at the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beerfest.
One last thing to keep in mind before we get to the beers themselves, Sierra Nevada switched from the twist off caps to pry-off caps in 2007. The problem with the twist off caps is that they are nowhere near as good at keeping oxygen out. Oxygen has a harmful effect on beer leading to oxidation which is described as flavors of cardboard or sherry.
The Times They Are a Changin’
After a few years, storage conditions becomes important so all vintages were refrigerated for the course of their life. The vertical was not in a straight order and instead jumped around. This eased the ability to detect what was changing between larger sets of years. Going year by year things would be more likely to seem to blend together and not stand out as much. The order of the years is laid out on the menu below:
The following thoughts were generally echoed by everyone in attendance, all of whose palates I have complete faith in. What we discovered was that the 17 years of beer breaks down into three large groups:
2014 – 2008: Hop Bliss
The fresher beers demonstrate a slowly decreasing, as we go back in time, the amount of hops. That slow decrease is starting from such a high level of hop presence that even by 2008 there remains a notable hop flavor. This goes against most traditional thought on the retention of hops. The beers in this period all had a notable alcohol presence but only the 2014/13/12 seemed to be notable hot, after that it began to mellow.
2007 – 2001: Harsh Heat
This whole period was nasty and unenjoyable. The beers here were varying levels of intense alcohol heat and harsh flavors. Slight oxidation began to show in increasing levels as you work back toward 2001. I’m not sure where the harsh flavors came from though I guess it’s a combination of oxidation, deterioration of hops, and changes in the malt profile. All this nastiness seems to have peaked around 2005/2003 with things cooling off after that.
2000 – 1998: Beautiful Balance
1999 was the first year we had from this range and we were all blown away by the quality. It’s strange to see what developed here after so many years of undesirable beer. Starting in 2000 the harsh flavor and alcohol heat faded away fast bringing out a number of complex flavors, caramel and dark fruit top among them. Absolutely no hop presence in any of these 3 years at all, no notable oxidation either. If you can stand to keep a Bigfoot in your cellar for 14 years you will be well rewarded with a delicious and complex beer that bears no relation to a fresh bottle. You could’ve easily convinced me these vintages were an entirely different brew.
A few days before the tasting began I read Patrick Dawson’s book Vintage Beer which I wrote a blog post about back here. Patrick did a 10 year vertical of many beers, including Bigfoot, and included a graph of the flavor changes him and his tasting team detected. It’s interesting to see the differences in what he detected vs. what we found.
Year By Year Breakdown
As we had the beers out-of-order here is a straight year-by-year breakdown for those curious about a specific year they may have downstairs.
2014 – Shockingly hoppy compared to the rest. Smoother heat then the middle range of years. Some soapy characteristics, no idea what that’s about.
2013 – Hot alcohol heat and very hoppy
2013 Barrel-Aged – Quite a bit different from the standard 2013. Nowhere near as hoppy, quite a bit sweeter, and definite oak character
2012 – Surprisingly fresh hops, flavors are becoming harsh but still good.
2011 – Harshness is starting to build and hoppiness has faded away. Smoothed out flavors and heat.
2010 – Slightly hoppy and a little hop. Starting to head downhill.
2009 – Wow, still happy after all these years! You could fool me that this was only a year old.
2008 – Still hoppy with smooth alcohol and plenty of fresh Bigfoot flavors
2007 – Much hotter with almost no oxidation.
2006 – Still in the middle range of harshness
2005 – Somewhat harsh and hot. Kinda the worst of all.
2004 – Light harshness with alcohol heat. Some oxidation but not much.
2003 – Similar to the 2001 but less oxidation.
2002 – Hot and harsh, nothing else of value here.
2001 – Surprisingly strong after all these years. Notably oxidized but still tasty.
2000 – Definitely back on the upswing to high-quality beers. Caramel, melanoidins hints of fruit, very little alcohol heat,
1999 – Any possible cardboard and oxygen flavors have folded back in and created an amazing beer.
1998 – Tannic and dark fruit jump out and dominate the aroma and flavor.
There Was Some Food Too…
Everyone came here to read about a Bigfoot vertical, but the best part of this dinner was not, as I alluded to earlier, the beer. So what was the best part of this dinner? Well, it’s split, first there is the astoundingly delicious food. I’m no foodie and am not going to dig into each meal but rest assured it was all delicious and ranks among the best food I’ve ever eaten[footnote]Chowder is forever ruined for me[/footnote]. The second part of the split was the revelation that my friend cooked all these things himself! None of us gathered there, some who had known the generous host far longer than I, had no idea he could prepare anything like the delicacies we enjoyed. Anyway, this is not a food blog but still… here is some tantalizing food porn that leaves my mouth-watering for what once was.
Have you done any verticals of Bigfoot? From 1 year to 30? If so share your thoughts below!