Today we’ve got a couple of examples of a fairly rare style – the black barley wine. Up first is the Harvestmoon Black Barley Wine, and we’ll follow that with the BrewDog #MashTag 2015.
Harvestmoon Black Barley Wine (ハーヴェストムーン・ブラックバーリーワイン)
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Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Oil black, almost no carbonation
Aroma – Sweet malts, plum is very strong, very nice
Flavor – Roast chocolate plums, sweet, finish is bitter chocolate
Black barley wines are indeed fairly rare stylistically, but what exactly is a black barley wine? Actually, that’s not an easy question to answer, and revolves around what you think a barley wine is. A barley wine, in turn is also a bit fuzzy in terms of description – while the BJCP lays out some style guidelines separately for Old Ale, English Barleywine and American Barleywine there is a lot of room for interpretation, and some people don’t distinguish between the three styles. Historically, however, you can trace it through a bit, with slight changes in style as it evolved – the Old Ale came first, and typically was quite dark in color with a very malt-heavy presence. Then the English Barleywine developed from the Old Ale, and while keeping the maltiness ramped up the ABV and also over time began to be brewed a paler color. Finally the Americans came in and, as always, Americanized it – richer, more hops, more bitterness, etc. – and at the same time popularized it (Anchor Steam had a big role in the barley wine revival with their Old Foghorn).
So now that we have some idea of a barley wine, that brings us back to the question of a black barley wine. Naturally, it gets fuzzy a bit here as well, as a black barley wine will essentially share many of the same characteristics as an imperial stout – rich maltiness, roast and chocolate, noticeable but toned down bitterness and so on. We might expect to see a bit more maltiness and fruit in a black barley wine and more hops and bitterness in an imperial stout, but overall given the variance in style it probably comes down to more a labeling preference than anything else.
With that in mind, let’s see what the Harvestmoon Black Barley Wine is all about. The first you’ll notice about this beer is the plum – it’s quite prominent in both the aroma and the flavor, and it’s very pleasant. However, it’s got more than that happening, and the roastiness, chocolate, and malts are all there. The hops are a bit more subtle, and mostly detected in a bitter chocolate finish. It’s a wonderfully balanced barley wine in terms of the immediate flavor profile, and I really enjoyed the plum aspect of it – in some ways, that puts this closer to a Belgian dark ale flavor-wise, minus the Belgian yeast.
Unfortunately, the beer deteriorates fairly quickly as it warms up, and all of the flavors thin out faster than I would prefer. It’s a pretty significant flaw as you’re not likely to down this beer quickly, and it would be nice if it held up better after opening to be able to savor it more.
Overall, though, it’s a good effort, and I like this one. It may be a bit tough to find as Harvestmoon bottles don’t really get around too much, but I managed to find mine at Tanakaya for a relatively good price at 787 yen. Not only is this a somewhat rare style, but the execution by Harvestmoon here is pretty solid, so pick it up if you can.
BrewDog #MashTag 2015
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 100
Pour – Slight carbonation, jet black
Aroma – Fresh hops, tropical fruit, almost like a wet-hopped IPA with slight roast, plum yeast
Flavor – Bitter slightly acerbic hops, slight roast on the finish, also slight tanginess and tartness on finish as well, more chocolate and plum as it warms up
Whatever you think about BrewDog as a brewer, one thing is certain – they are never above a marketing gimmick. It’s hard to describe the #MashTag series of beers as anything else, and they claim it’s the first Twitter beer. The way it works is basically like this – every day for one week in March, they let people vote via Twitter or Facebook or their blog for one of three options on various aspects of the beer, and then BrewDog will brew it according to the winning specs. Monday is the beer style, Tuesday is the grain bill and ABV, Wednesday is the hops and IBU, Thursday is the special ingredient, and Friday is the name/design. They first started this in 2013, and the winner that year was a hopped up brown ale, followed by a hopped up imperial red ale in 2014.
The #MashTag 2015 ended up being a hopped up black barley wine brewed with vanilla beans and oak chips, so let’s get right to it. The aroma is very hop-heavy but in a mellow way – certainly not what I was expecting at all. The hops are also quite present in the flavor, and initially the bitterness is the most noticeable aspect of the beer. Although IBU isn’t that reliable an indicator of bitterness for big beers like barley wines and imperial stouts, the 100 IBU here does make itself known. There’s also a surprising tartness in there as well, and as it warms up the plums and chocolate come out more.
In fact, one of the things that I really liked about this beer compared to the Harvestmoon is that the flavors developed in a positive manner in the BrewDog, with a softer plum/chocolate taking over the slightly sharp bitterness. The Harvestmoon really just kind of broke down and become decidedly less enjoyable over time. So yes, the #MashTag thing is pretty gimmicky (and not necessarily unique – the Brussels Beer Project also makes community-sourced beers, and they started in 2013 as well), and many people have their issues with BrewDog being better marketers than brewers, but I think the #MashTag 2015 is a very good beer. It’s not cheap – I found mine at Shinanoya for 1036 yen, but if you’re curious you’ll be getting a pretty good beer to keep you warm at night.