Maryland Beer: A barrel aged Barleywine shootout (PART II: Heavy Seas)

AARGH – That is something you will hear Hugh Sisson say as he takes you around Heavy Seas Brewery in Halethorpe, MD. Hugh Sisson is one of the few brewery founders that I know of, that will regularly lead tours of their brewery.

Hugh Sisson also is a bit of a Maryland Beer legend. First he saw that bars could offer more than the same big beer brands he saw at everywhere, so he began importing as many as he could. Sisson’s was one of the first bars in Maryland to offer Guinness on draft. In the early 1980’s, as an educational exercise, he began homebrewing, but this became more. It inspired him to lobby the Maryland State Legislature to allow brewpubs.

Hugh Sisson leading a tour from the brewing deck.

Sisson’s then became the first brewpub in Maryland. And while he didn’t open Maryland’s first post-prohibition microbrewery, which was Oxford, he did later acquire them.

In 1989 Hugh Sisson was one of the founding members of one of the area’s first homebrew clubs, The Cross Street Irregulars. In 1994 Sisson left Sisson’s brewpub to found Clipper City.

Clipper City had its ups-and-downs as did the whole “microbrew” industry of the 1990s. It seemed people were starting to get a taste for better beer, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the rapid growth that had occurred.

But rather than closing their doors Clipper City started contract brewing to keep them afloat. Then in 2003 Heavy Seas was conceived. Heavy Seas at this time was just a series in the Clipper City brand, but the bigger beers that would be produced in this line were the beers that made Sisson’s brand take off. So much so, that in 2010 Clipper City as a brand was no more. Heavy Seas was now officially born. The beers that made up the original Clipper City brand were now put into a series called the Clipper Fleet. Today, Heavy Seas has 3 Fleets. The Clipper Fleet, the Pyrate Fleet, and the Mutiny Fleet. AARGH!

Below Decks Cabernet Barrel Aged Barleywine is a member of the Mutiny Fleet, and becomes available each December. Unlike the bourbon barrel version of Below Decks, which spend just a few months in bourbon barrels, the cabernet barrel aged version spends an entire year soaking in wine barrels. For those of you that want to understand aging beer a little better make it a point to find a bottle of this, since it’s already spent a good amount of time maturing in optimal conditions.

Before I continue, I need to make a bit of a confession. I’m just not into the whole AARGH or extrAARGHdinary pirate thing. It’s cute and a bit cheeky. Just not my thing. However, I do like the Jolly Roger on the bottles. On the traditional Below Decks the Jolly Roger is holding a lamp. However on the barrel aged versions, it is sitting in a barrel either holding a candle in a XXX  bottle for bourbon barrel aged, or a candle in a wine bottle for the cabernet barrel aged version. So if you take a theme I’m not a fan of, and make it informative, more likely than not I will then like it.

I guess I should start talking about what the beer tasted like. For those of you that are homebrewers like Hugh Sisson, this is a 19B: English Barleywine, from the BJCP Style guide. This is really good information, because what this tells you more than anything is that the hop character is going to be less assertive, and one can expect a more malty profile. That was certainly true in this barleywine. The nose is almost entirely malt and esters from the BAShootoutbarrel aging.

If you really focus you can find the hops. But even when the hops are found they are faint and just a little earthy. The sweetness also is very apparent (and expected). What is also very noticeable is the dark fruit notes. Plum, cherry, grape, and a hint of leather. Where you will see flaws in this beer are in the fact that when poured there is almost no head.

If you blink you will miss it. Not that I really expect a rich creamy head from a barleywine. The carbonation is also very low. I generally expect low carbonation for this style, but this was even lower than normal. The low carbonation and non-existent head is likely due to the tannins imparted during the barrel aging. The presence of these tannins also leads to some degree of astringency on the mouthfeel.

Let’s get on to the best part – the taste.

I am a big fan of aging beer in wine barrels. Whether it be white wine, or red. I feel that wine offers flavors that blend easily and feel very natural in beer. Of course you need to pick your battles. Would a barleywine aged in Chardonnay barrels be a good choice? Don’t think so. But a Cabernet barrel? Oh yeah.

Below Decks is a good barleywine, without barrel aging I find it competent, but not my favorite. The flavors of the base barleywine come through here with it being malty, caramel, toffee, toasty, and a little roasty. The finish is long and chewy with some citrus and grassy flavors from the hops. What the barrel aging gives this beer is even more toffee, lots of dark fruit, stone fruit, grapes, and leather. But what makes wine barrel aging awesome is that if you gave this glass to someone that didn’t know it was barrel aged they might not get it. They would likely be scratching their heads on where some of the flavors came from, but it is subtle. No, that’s wrong. Once you know it’s there, it isn’t subtle, but really it is just natural.

Overall this is a really enjoyable barleywine. It’s going to drop points on a judging scale due to a few technical flaws, but really who cares if it is enjoyable.

UPCOMING EVENTS – This Saturday, April 13th, is the Spring Real Ale Festival at the Pratt Street Alehouse in conjunction with the Chesapeake Bay Branch of SPBW. This is an all cask festival. The Baltimore Washington area features more cask ale than anywhere in the United States. And Heavy Seas will be there and Heavy Seas happens to be the largest producer of cask ales in the United States. This festival is one of my favorites in the area.

Read Part 1 of the series here.
Read Part 3 of the series here.