This is our first barley wine review here, so let’s go with what are probably the two most popular ones here – the SanktGallen el Diablo and the Baird Ganko Oyaji Barley Wine.
SanktGallen el Diablo
Package: 300mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 91; OG – 1.098; hops – Nugget, Cascade, Chinook
Pour – Cloudy, lots of sediment, orangish-brown, not much foam but lacing sticks
Aroma – Nice combination of malts and very soft hops, a bit of plum
Flavor – Initially malts with a bit of caramel, very bitter hoppy finish, dry and peppery, almost cinnamony
SanktGallen release their barley wine and wheat wine together every winter (we reviewed the Un angel here – actually with the same brewer pairing with the Baird West Coast Wheat Wine), and they both share that distinctive phallic 300mL bottle, with the barley wine being purple instead of white. From a brewing note perspective, it’s interesting to see that the IBU on the el Diablo is a meaty 91, whereas the Un angel was only 55. Comparing that with Baird, their West Coast Wheat Wine was at 80 IBU and their Ganko Oyaji Barley Wine is at 90, so you can see that SanktGallen have a far greater bitterness gap between their barley and wheat wines.
They have an interesting little blog post here detailing how they bottle this beer. First of all it’s bottle-conditioned so they don’t add any carbonation, and all of the bottles are filled and capped by hand. They use a hand capper so they’re proud to point out that each bottle will actually have little marks on the outside where the capper damages the bottle! I’m not sure how many bottles of these they produce a year, but no doubt it’s a lot of work to hand-bottle these.
The SanktGallen el Diablo is a dangerous beer – it’s very smooth given its ABV. The big differentiator here compared with other barley wines is its hop bitterness – it’s very bitter, and the hops are even quite present in the aroma. At first you get the malts, but the bitterness takes over soon enough, and that leads to a hop bitter, pepper finish. As it warms up you start to get some cinnamon in there, which is nice. Overall a pretty good barley wine, and while the bitterness might be a tad overdone the smoothness of the beer wins out.
This beer is cellarable for up to 5 years, so if you’ve got the time and space it’s probably worth trying. I’ve tried an aged el Diablo on tap before, and it definitely ages well – the bitterness tones down, and the fruit and plum aspects really shine. In fact I think it’s much better aged, but the bitterness on a fresh one is also quite interesting.
Like its wheat wine sibling, this beer isn’t cheap – I find it to be consistently sold at 1080 yen, and at only 300mL I can’t really say it’s a bargain. A nice beer and definitely worth trying, but too expensive to stock up on. Try it though, as it’s probably the best barley wine in Japan.
Baird Ganko Oyaji Barley Wine (ベアードビール・がんこおやじのバーレィワイン)
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 90; hops – US Columbus, Warrior, Sorachi Ace, Northern Brewer
Pour – Reddish-amber, not much carbonation
Aroma – Sugary, slight hops, fig
Flavor – Very very sweet, malts are there but sugar dominates, finish is almost unbearably sweet, a bit of plum as it warms up
The Baird Ganko Oyaji Barley Wine is just way too sweet to be enjoyable. The aroma actually has a hint of hops in there amidst the sugar, but the flavor is really just too sweet. Initially you do get a bit of malts, but right after that there is a burst of sugar that never stops, and the finish is even more sweet and is really too much. It’s odd because the first line of their brewing notes states, “The key to brewing high gravity beers like a Barley Wine is to avoid excessive sweetness.” They list a few brewing techniques they do to keep the sweetness under control, but the end result here is just way too sweet, and in spite of what their brewing notes say there isn’t anywhere enough bitterness or hop presence to balance out the sweetness. As it warms up you do get a bit of plum and fruit character to it, so that’s a point in its favor, and it definitely does get better over time. Is it enough to overcome its initial sweetness? I personally don’t think so, as that’s a fairly major flaw, but to its credit it does improve as it warms up.
In terms of availability the Ganko Oyaji is relatively easy to find at the usual Baird outlets – that would include Liquors Hasegawa, where I purchased mine, and Deguchiya among others. It only cost me a very affordable 590 yen, so in terms of price it’s a much better deal than the SanktGallen el Diablo. However, the el Diablo is a far superior beer, even though it it may be a tad too bitter. The Ganko Oyaji, though, is for me a bust simply due to its sweetness, and even though it may cost a bit more I would recommend going with the el Diablo, and if you can swing it get one to put aside! It does great with some aging.
We’ll take a look at a couple more barley wines in Japan before the season ends, but these two are the most commonly available ones. You may even still be able to find them if you look around – I know I saw the Ganko Oyaji this last week (I’m writing this almost into April), although I haven’t seen the el Diablo for a little while now. Happy hunting!