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Classic Beer of the Month March 2011: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot

Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale, 9.6%

Sierra Nevada never fails to impress. Founded in the university city of Chico, northern California, only in 1980, it is America’s second largest craft brewer, now producing around half a million barrels of beer each year.

Sierra Nevada BigfootThe beer that made the company’s name was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – probably the archetypal US pale ale, skilfully laced with the teasing citrus notes of Cascade hops – but I don’t think there’s ever been a beer from Sierra Nevada that has fallen short of the mark, and the company’s barley wine is no exception.

Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale (US law strangely prohibits the use of the term ‘barley wine’ on its own in case people think it is actually a wine) is named after the mythical missing link that roams the backwoods of this part of the world.

Also known as the sasquatch, the bigfoot is an abominable snowman-type creature allegedly spotted on numerous occasions but whose existence has never been verified.

The beer itself is considerably easier to find. It is brewed with pale and caramel (crystal) malts and seasoned with three hops. Chinooks go into the copper early for bitterness, with Cascades and Centennials adding aroma later in the boil.

The beer is also dry hopped with more of all three strains in the conditioning tank, after fermentation.

Complex Flavours

Deep ruby-brown in colour, Bigfoot opens with citrus hop notes really shining through in the aroma, along with fruit of a different kind as the esters created during fermentation bring suggestions of raisins, strawberries and plums.

A touch of chocolate from the malt adds another dimension to the nose and sherry-like notes arrive with age as the hoppiness subsides.

This is a beer that knows its strength (at least 9.6%, sometimes more) and is not afraid to show it, but alcohol is kept beautifully under control and admirably supports the complex flavours of red berries and citrus fruit in the bittersweet taste, before the finish – full and malty at first – becomes a showcase for those luscious American hops.

Brewing strong beer is not as easy as it seems. Sticky, exaggerated sweetness, solvent-like esters, burning alcohol and other detracting flavours can really mess things up. Sierra Nevada, however, makes it seem so effortless.

Bigfoot is a great barley wine with a pronounced American accent, everything you could want from a relaxing winter beer.

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