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Barley Wine Ales

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Barley wine--the English term for a very strong ale--is definitely not meant as a session brew, but the rich and robust flavors and high octane make them the perfect thing for a cold weather nightcap. The first new releases are just starting to trickle into valley beer venues. Here's the premier trio:

2010 Alaskan Barley Wine Ale, Pilot Series

This offering pours a dark mahogany with a mocha froth that fades quickly but leaves a nice lacing. The aromas are like a malt-soaked fruit cake with lots of sweet citrus and caramelized brown sugar. While it weighs in at 10.7 percent alcohol, you feel it more than taste it. The flavors are definitely malt driven, with a cake quality and a smooth creaminess, while the hops lurk in the background, coming through on the finish along with a nice toastiness.

Anchor Brewing Old Foghorn Barley wine Style Ale

A hazy amber in color, the light tan head of this brew is very thick and shows excellent retention. It's a little boozy on the nose with toffee, plum and herb aromas and a surprising hit of fruity hops. At a relatively mild 8.8 percent alcohol, the flavors are a mix of smooth malt and lightly sour cherry and other fruits. Touches of anise and fig color the finish, along with a whisper of bitterness.

Fish Brewing Reel Ales 10 Squared Barley Wine Ale

Packed with 10 different hops and weighing in at 100 International Bitterness Units, you might conclude that this is a Double IPA masquerading as a barley wine. But it also boasts 10 percent alcohol and enough malt richness to keep things in balance. All told, the hops are big but not overwhelming, at least not to my hop-loving palate. They definitely contribute a nice dry, resiny bitterness from start to finish, while fruity, vanilla-laced malt lurks in the background. This one is excess at its delicious best.