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Oct 23, 2014

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The Sasq-Watch

By Marty Nachel

It all started innocently enough in mid-winter of 1991. I made the annual pilgrimage to my local beer store to pick up a six-pack of the latest release of Bigfoot Barleywine for my own personal indulgence. I coveted this stuff and treated it like liquid gold; never drinking more than one bottle at a time and rarely more than one bottle a week. By the time I got down to my last bottle almost a month and a half later, I couldn't stand the thought that it would be 10 long months before I would see my cherished brew again (the few cases allotted to the store were long gone by now). I just couldn't bring myself to drink the last bottle.

When I repeated my trek the following year, I still had a year-old sample of Bigfoot in my fridge, now ripely aged and ready for a side-by-side tasting with its newborn sibling. But, alas, I couldn't justify the random consumption of a well-preserved and delicately cared-for bottle of barleywine, arguably the best of its kind in this country. Unbeknownst to me, there were greater forces at work here; ones that only time would reveal.

In early Spring of '93, I gazed longingly at my three silently aging bottles of barleywine when I finally realized their purpose: a vertical tasting of vintage-dated Bigfoot was predestined. Determining the vintage quantity at the seemingly logical number of six different years, it was apparent that this tasting was only halfway to becoming reality. My patience and dedication would never be so challenged.

For the next two years I dutifully squirrelled away a bottle of that winter season's edition of Bigfoot. In doing so, I came to realize the perils of single-bottle storage and agonized with the fear of losing an entire year's representation with a simple mishap. Why didn't I save at least two bottles- or better yet, why didn't I buy more in the first place!? Thrift, over-confidence, and instant gratification became my ghosts of winters past.

As the calendar page turned to January, 1996, my heightened anticipation of the impending tasting was savagely struck by this harsh realization: due to increased demand for the product in the west, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company would no longer be shipping Bigfoot to the Midwestern states. Was this someone's idea of a cruel joke? Had I offended the Beer Gods in some unknown way?

Intent on proving that I had not waited five years of my life in vain, I scurried to find someone- anyone on the west coast who would be kind enough to purchase and send a bottle -no, make that two- of the '96 Bigfoot Barleywine so I might complete my long-awaited tasting. Wait a minute, I thought, why not go straight to the source? Contacting the public relations department at Sierra Nevada, I managed to procure a fresh bottled sample that was kindly deposited at my doorstep less than a week later (as relieved as I was to receive the much sought-after bottle of Bigfoot, I was even more relieved to find that I had not, as I feared, offended the Beer Gods).

Anxious to commence with the tasting, I called on some of the most talented and educated palates I know. Culling from a list of experienced beer judges in my area, I invited Steve Kamp, Mike Pezan, Dick Van Dyke, and Bob Ward to participate in this event. All are veteran homebrewers and all are members of the BJCP beer judge program (Dick, Bob and I also sit on the panel of beer evaluators at the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago). Together, we have amassed over 29 years of judging experience.

With regards to scoring, two distinctly different scoring methods were used simultaneously. The first is the well-known and often used 50-point scale popularized by the American Homebrewers Association that has become the standard for beer evaluation at homebrew competitions throughout the United States. The AHA scoring format is very objective, awarding points for the various sensual interpretations of a given beer according to a specific style.

The second, and less well-known method, is the hedonic scale developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). This scale, in an expanded 14-point version, is employed at the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago. The hedonic scale is a very subjective scoring format, awarding points commensurate to the amount of pleasure that is derived from a particular beer, regardless of its method of manufacture and/or stylistic integrity (see sidebar). Judges, in effect, are told to "measure the pleasure".

A couple of miscellaneous procedures to note include: Four of the five judges tasted the beers blindly, while I acted as the pourer, moderator, and environmental controller. All bottles were removed from refrigeration and allowed to stand at room temperature for more than 1 hour prior to tasting. The judges were told they were tasting the different vintages out-of-sequence, when, in fact, they were tasted in sequence. This was done in an attempt to remove any pre-determined biases towards beer aging and deterioration.

Here, then, are the judges' combined commentary on the six vintages of Bigfoot Barleywine:

1991 - "Sherry-like aroma; alcohol evident up front. Slight oxidation noted. Toasted almonds and caramel notes in the nose and on the palate. Malt character is waning. Clean, firm hop bitterness, though not overpowering. Balance is wavering. A bit thin; well-aged. Plenty of throat-warming in the finish; fairly alcoholic over all."

1992 - "Hint of raisiny fruitiness backed by toasty malt notes. Spicy hop aroma becomes more evident as the beer warms and breathes; ethanol wafts in and out. Toasted malt character is dominated by huge hop presence. Fairly well-aged; lacking in body and mouthfeel. 'Biting' carbonation and peppery-hot finish. Good length, but out-of-balance."

1993 - "Rich, nutty malt character; big complementary hop bouquet. Caramelly malt complexity is abetted by alcohol warmth. Chewy texture and mouthfeel with plenty of resiny hop flavor. Excellent balance and length. Not subtle but eminently drinkable. Beervana."

1994 - "Estery nose with toasty malt and herbal hop aromas. Soft, fruity malt palate lacks complexity. Missing depth and aggressiveness exposes rough edges. Tobacco and woody flavors suggest an unpleasant phenolic character. Rather thin and unrefined."

1995 - "Estery-citrusy aroma with hints of prunes and grapefruit, along with background suphur notes. Layered caramelly malt flavors offer subtle lingering sweetness. Rush of fresh hop flavor and bold and balanced bittering. Ethanol warmth is pleasing. Very big and complex. Drinkability factor is high."

1996 - "Subtle citrusy fruitiness yields to toasty, buttery, and toffee aromas. Big malt character is muddled and punctuated by off-flavors. Lots of coarse hop bittering, but citrusy hop flavors are noticeably missing. Harsh alcohol heat is evident. A brash young beer in need of maturing."

All six vintages showed evidence of precipitate matter in the poured product. Color and hue was uniformly consistent, though the 1996 appeared somewhat darker than the rest. Head retention varied with little regard to the beers' age.

The Scoring Methods:
American Homebrewers Association 50-point scale:
  10- Bouquet/aroma
  6- Appearance
  19- Flavor
  5- Body
  10- Drinkability & Overall Impression

ASTM Hedonic method (expanded 14 point scale):

  0-1 Extreme displeasure
  2-3 Strong displeasure
  4-5 Slight displeasure
  6-7 Not pleasant nor unpleasant
  8-9 Slight pleasure
  10-11 Strong pleasure
  12-13 Extreme pleasure

The Scores:

AHA format
Vint. 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996
MP 34 40 36 33 38 35
MN 40 35 46 28 45 29
SK 29 28 42 26 41 27
BW 36 33 39 28 40 34
DV 34 31 42 37 39 38
Tot.: 173 167 205 152 203 163
Ave.: 34.6 33.4 41 30.4 40.6 32.6

Hedonic format
Vint. 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996
MP 8 11 9 8 10 9
MN 12 11 12 8 12 8
SK 8 7 11 7 11 6
BW 10 9 11 5 12 8
DV 10 10 12 10 12 9
Tot.: 48 48 55 38 57 40
Ave.: 9.6 9.6 11 7.6 11.4 8

Placement:
AHA Format Hedonic Format
1993 (205) 1995 (57)
1995 (203) 1993 (55)
1991 (173) 1991 (48) tie
1992 (167) 1992 (48) tie
1996 (163) 1996 (40)
1994 (152) 1994 (38)

1997 Marty Nachel

BOOKS BY
MARTY NACHEL

beer for dummies
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homebrewing for dummies
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beer across america
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