I’ve whined a bit in the past that Shipyard isn’t my favorite local brewery. The crew definitely brews great traditional English-style ales, but my distaste for their proprietary Ringwood yeast makes most of their beers a bit unpalatable for me. I certainly applaud Shipyard for becoming so popular and maintaining a solid stable of year-round and seasonal beers, but in the past only the strongest-flavored brews like the Blue Fin Stout and Prelude really did it for me.
Since last October, the four beers that have come out of the Pugsley’s Signature Series have really turned me on to the brewery. I tried the barleywine right after release last fall and enjoyed the traditional English take on the style. The XXXX IPA and Imperial Porter proved to be tasty brews, and I raved about the Smashed Pumpkin earlier this fall. So, naturally, I jumped on the chance to try a cellar aged version of the barleywine when it was released earlier this month.
Apart from a press release, the beer has seen a release with little acclaim. Pugsley has been pretty mum about the brew, only saying that “As this beer has aged, the flavors have developed to become more complex.” Even the bottle is easy to miss on the shelves – other than a “cellar aged” sticker on the label, the packaging is identical to the fresh version. There isn’t anything extreme about the beer, per se – it’s simply a bottle aged (not barrel-aged, not port-aged…) version of the beer that came out last year. Still, an extra year to mellow out and develop certainly won’t hurt a big beer like a barley wine.
Believe it or not, I didn’t keep great notes on the “fresh” version of the beer – I remember it being slightly smoky, a beer balanced between bitter and sweet with a mahogany body. The booze was a bit strong, but it was an otherwise solid, balanced and sippable beer.
A year later, the barleywine pours as I remember – a deep reddish brown with a slight brown head. Despite the dark color, the beer is crystal clear with some lazy carbonation visible. The nose is way malty, with almost none of the floral or fruity hops from the earlier vintage. Instead, things are sweet and fruity, with plum and liquorice mingling with the caramel and toffee malt.
A sip shows that the beer has mellowed way out from last fall. No bitter hops, no real alcohol bite. Instead, I’m getting caramel, toffee and vanilla. The biggest change is the slight smokiness that was present a year ago, which has turned into a rich floral yet full tobacco flavor. Carbonation is subdued a bit more, with just a few bubbles on the tongue. Despite the mellowing of the alcohol off the bat, the beer gets a bit boozier as it warms up and is still definitely a sipper.
If you’re a big fan of English barleywines, Pugsley and the Shipyard crew have made a brew faithful to the style. I’m honestly more of a fan of the hoppier American take on the style, but this sweet and warm brew is great for the cool fall/winter weather here in Maine. If you have choice between the fresh and cellar-aged versions, I’d definitely steer you towards the older brew – the taste has really mellowed out, and the alcohol isn’t nearly as harsh.
Take one home for Thanksgiving, split it among a couple snifters, and show your family how different beer can be that light lagers.