Lots of different beers exist, especially as craft beer is exploding. With over 5,000 breweries in the U.S. alone, there are more unique beers now than there’s been since before prohibition. Then, there are the breweries all over the world, some of which have been open longer than the U.S. has been a country.
Despite the plethora of choices we have at our fingertips, there are some beers that have reached legendary status. Dusty bottles and whispered names passed down from seasoned beer drinkers to wide-eyed newbies, there are some beers that you don’t argue as to whether the beer is good; you just take whatever pour someone hands you, say Thank you, close your eyes, and sip the elixir.
One of those beers is J.W. Lees Harvest Ale, an English barleywine that is lauded by the most esteemed and seasoned beer drinkers. It could easily be called the best barleywine in the world based on how many professionals seem to be head-over-heels in love with this beer. Seriously, Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery and author of The Brewmaster’s Table (which is often considered the best reference for food pairing), absolutely adores this beer, so you should too.
When I first got into craft beer, this was one of the first legendary beers I heard about, and I immediately wondered how long it would be until I tried a bottle. It actually took me awhile, and I only tried the 2014 version aged in port barrels a mere seven months ago. However, I instantly fell in love and vowed to get my hands on any bottles I could from here on out.
Cut to a few weeks later, and I’m shopping for general groceries. Since I live in a state with fairly loose liquor laws, I popped over to the beer section to see what they had. Much to my surprise, they had two types of J.W. Lees Harvest Ale nonchalantly sitting between some local bombers. I grabbed two small bottles of the 2014 Harvest Ale Autumn Limited Edition and one large bottle of the 25th Anniversary Harvest Ale (2001).
What makes this anniversary beer special is that it uses champagne yeast. Since this type of yeast is super alcohol tolerant, homebrewers sometimes use it to achieve a high alcohol content, but this beer is no stronger than the typical Harvest Ale release. Instead, what the champagne yeast is going to do is increase the bubbles. Barleywines typically have a very low level of carbonation, but this active yeast should create more bubbles in the mouth. The end result, I’m hoping, is that this stronger-than-normal carbonation should help some flavors open up on the tongue.
Lucky for me, my wish was granted.
Immediately upon opening the bottle, the aroma of molasses and alcoholic warmth waft up to my nose, and the huge character of this beer is hard to ignore.
Slowly, the foam builds in the bottle and slowly creeps up the neck of the 750ml wine-like bottle. When poured, the khaki-colored head explodes and takes up half my snifter, and I’m impressed this six-year-old, 11.5% beer has this much carbonation still left in it, even if it does fade somewhat quickly. I know champagne yeast was used, but the amount of foam could have rivaled some Belgian beers I’ve popped before.
As the rocky foam subsides, the opaque orange-ish mahogany liquid hiding underneath is revealed. At first glance, the beer reminds me of those caramel chews with the white cream in the center, especially since the color of the beer matches the candy’s own hue.
And that association doesn’t seem too far off, either. As I hold it up to the light, my nose is still far from the lip of the glass, but I smell something reminiscent of Highland Scotch: oak, caramel, and alcohol. And, although these are the most powerful smells that dominate when the nose dives into the snifter’s empty space, notes of raisin, bread crust, orange marmalade, honey, and vanilla become more apparent.
The nose on this beer is powerful, but it’s not just the aroma that demands attention, though; the taste is huge as well. Based on the nose, I was expecting a lot more sweetness, but the initial flavor (although still slightly balanced towards the sweet malt) combines toffee, astringent oak wood, vanilla, earthy hops, dried dates, alcohol, and walnuts.
After the initial semi-sweet start, this beer dries out. The oak flavors become stronger, and the vanilla and toffee fade underneath the alcoholic warmth. The beer almost starts to taste the way dry bark smells. Then, a hint of smoke arises briefly before fading underneath the wood and caramel flavors. The ultimate finish of the beer is dry, and the carbonation expands in the mouth, keeping the huge flavors from overwhelming the palate.
Admittedly, there are solvent-y and skunky notes in the beer. With any bottle this old, oxidation flavors are almost unavoidable, and in this bottle, they’re presenting as the solvent character instead of the typical wet cardboard flavor. Then, the skunkiness I mentioned comes in at the very tail end, and it doesn’t linger for long; however, the flavor could be a lot more potent considering how long this beer has sat inside a green bottle. All in all, the off-flavors that do present still complement the overall profile of the beer well, and they are easy to ignore.
Overall, this beer is simply delicious, and it’s very easy to see how this beer has become a legend among beer geeks. After awhile, I found myself simply sipping the beer instead of feeling the need to pick it apart because of how well the flavors melded together. Why pick everything apart when the whole package is this close to perfection? I pondered this (but ultimately couldn’t figure out the right answer) as I took another sip and closed my eyes to focus purely on the bold flavors dancing across my taste buds.