Monday, March 9, 2009

Barleywine Week(s): Stone Old Guardian

La Cave du Vin sits at the top of the hill in a dining, retail and entertainment district near Case Western Reserve University on Cleveland's near East Side. it is, in many respects, like The Malt House here in Madison; it has no TVs, plays comfortable music and stays out of the way of people who are just out to have a nice conversation around some good drinks. the lights are dim, people are packed in tightly, there is a loud, white-noise buzz from the din of fifty conversations occurring concurrently.

As you might expect from the name of the place, their specialty is wine. Or at least it was. It is also one of the best beer bars in the country. Along one wall is four refrigerated doors of beer. Beer from all over the world and of any and every style imaginable. The modus operandi at La Cav is a bit of a departure from most places. You select your own bottle from the refrigerator like you would at a retail liquor store, and then set them at your table, unopened. A server walking by will take note of your purchases, bring you appropriate glassware and then open the bottle for you. This process provides a unique mix of self-service and server skill. These servers are amongst the most knowledgeable I've ever met; to a person they have an encyclopedic knowledge of inventory, style, and tasting notes. They are comfortable and capable of making a recommendation that turns out to be exactly what you are looking for.

My step-brother, six years my junior, got me into craft beer. I gave him his first Labatt, he gave me my first Dogfish Head 120. When I manage to make it back to Cleveland, my hometown, La Cav is our haunt. Three years ago, my step-brother and I were there and he says to me: "They have a beer tap that I want you to try. This is one of the few places in the country that has this beer on tap. It'll knock you on your ass and kick you in the teeth."

And that is how I was introduced to San Diego's Stone Brewing Company and The Double Bastard. It was one of those experiences, like the Dogfish Head 120, like the Augustiner Maximator, that completely changed my perception of what beer is and what beer could be. The Double Bastard was, and remains, unlike anything I've ever had. It is an all-out assault on the palate with a big hoppy aroma and bitterness and over-the-top malt paunch (it certainly ain't no backbone). Yet, it is more than that; it is complex, it changes as it warms and as it ages. Heck, it changes depending on the glass you choose to put it in. It shows a skill in design and execution that few other breweries in the world possess. And it will indeed knock you on your ass and kick you in the teeth.

The Double Bastard is at the very top of American West Coast brewing. It is the definition of what we mean when we say that a beer tastes like a "West Coast" beer. It is more than merely "imperial." Stone doesn't need to call their IPA "imperial" - "Ruination" suffices; big and over the top is assumed. But it's also more than just "over-the-top." There is a skill to super-hoppy beers that not every brewer possesses. And "West Coast" implies not just "big", but skillful. Not just an assault on the palate, but a depth and complexity that makes you want another. It what breweries like Stone, Sierra Nevada, Bear Republic, Lagunitas and others do so well. And that breweries here in the Midwest, along the East Coast, and around the world simply can't replicate. Each beer is a challenge and a statement in and of itself. The rest of us can only respond.

I'm not saying that Stone is the best brewery in the world. They might be, but I'm not saying that. I'm not saying that West Coast breweries are the best in the world. I'm not even saying that they make the best hoppy beers. I'm just saying that "West Coast" means something. It mean something in the way that "Trappist" means something. It mean something in the way that "Cotes du Rhone" means something or "Sonoma" means something. It is a quality, attitude and philosophy of production that is inseparable from the place and unreproduceable anywhere else in the world. New Glarus or Harpoon or Duvel or De Struise could make The Double Bastard or the Black Bear Stout or the Bigfoot Barleyine ingredient-for-ingredient and they would only be mere imitations.

Stone Old Guardian Barleywine - Limited Early 2009 Release
Appearance: Served at a brisk 49 degrees, it is a white, wispy head; dark honey in color and mostly clear, one of us thought it looked like wood varnish
Aroma: alcohol, pine and citrus with a biscuity, light woody maltiness underneath
Flavor: lighter and more refined than the 11.3% ABV barleywine title might have implied, it has the body and taste of fine red wine, though it is well and finely carbonated; the hops are noticeable first, but as you sip through the glass the malts come forward with a slight toffee and clean malt flavor
Body: a lingering bitterness leaves a pleasant hop and malty flavor
Drinkability: I could drink more of this in a heartbeat; at 11.3% in a bomber, I'd share the bomber among three or four people for dinner
Summary: Definitely not in the same vein as the "hit you over the head" beers that Stone is known for, but it is a big, hop-forward beer that is something that you might take home to meet the parents

1 comment:

  1. So what does "midwest" or "Wisconsin" mean in geographic beer determinism terms? Which attributes/styles/techniques are so thoroughly possessed, so thoroughly identified as midwestern that anyone out of region is merely imitating? Are there any? I'm not so sure there are. And if not, does that mean that midwestern breweries offer no significant or lasting contributions to the culture of brewing?

    I've got a Double Bastard in the fridge presently.


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