While the earth's temperature may be on the rise, it's still winter outside, and global warming aside, it remains cold enough for you to question the sanity of those clinging to the shorts of summer. While I enjoy the occasional crisp and clean lager this time of year, it's most often with a meal. Now I'm looking more for something to hold off the chill, something like antifreeze for the body. American Barley Wine certainly fits the bill. These intense brews can vary stylistically from sweet malt sippers to headily hopped monsters, but the one thing they have in common is a high alcohol content. Designate the driver before you partake.
The first few barley wines are just starting to roll into Boise, Uinta Brewing's XIII among them. Thirteen is a lucky number for this Salt Lake-based company--it's one of their best brews ever. Starts with lovely mocha and spice aromas that give only the barest hint of the high alcohol lurking below (10.4 percent). Equally smooth and surprisingly subdued on the palate, the lightly creamy malt is perfectly balanced by a healthy hop bite. Think cappuccino with a dusting of chocolate. The hops add a clean, almost crisp touch to the finish that helps this one go down almost too easily.
The folks at California's North Coast Brewing don't label their Old Stock Ale as a barley wine, but it certainly qualifies. Topped with a nice creamy froth, aromas of sweet malt and stone fruit dominate the nose. Sweeter on the palate as well with a cola berry quality backed by fruit-laced tapioca. More typical of an English version of the genre, and that's not surprising given the imported English malt and hops that go into this one. The finish is clean and smooth with a lovely peach quality, but the overall style encourages sipping, and at 11.6 percent alcohol, that's a good thing.
Technically an experiment in the Imperial Stout style, Deschutes Brewing's The Abyss, at 11 percent alcohol, certainly qualifies as high octane. The 22 ounce reserve bottling has a classy label and a wax finished closure that's only a little less difficult to open than a new CD. Inside is a deep, dark brew with fresh ground coffee and bittersweet chocolate aromas. Aging in oak barrels contributes a nice smoothness, but the flavors are still big and bold with the emphasis on sweetish espresso. A nice hit of toast on the finish lingers pleasantly, and while you might be tempted to finish the bottle on your own, you should probably share this one with a friend.