Until 2015, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s early spring celebration of malty, high-gravity brews was called the Burly Beers and Barleywines Festival. To make the event’s name a little less wordy, it will be known simply as the Burly Beer Festival when it returns to the Mills River brewery on Saturday, April 1, but the focus will remain on big beers.
Sierra Nevada beer ambassador Bill Manley says that from the over 50 participating breweries — most of which are bringing at least two beers each — 20 barley wines will be served. Yet, dropping the style from the fest’s name unintentionally doubles as a symbolic gesture. Small batches of barley wines seasonally pop up at such Asheville breweries as Burial Beer Co., Highland Brewing Co., Twin Leaf Brewery and Wicked Weed Brewing, but beyond the annual bottle releases of Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot and Pisgah Brewing Co.’s Hellbender, it has a limited presence in the local industry.
“In general, popularity of English-style beers has gone way down in general in the American market,” says Benton Wharton, talent buyer and events director for Pisgah. “Folks are into superhoppy American versions of classic styles, and now a lot of flavor profiles of the headier drinkers tend to lean to sours. So, I think [barley wine is] one of those styles that harks back to early craft brewing that — I don’t know if folks are over it, per se — but it certainly hasn’t taken on the popularity of certain other styles like the different versions of the IPA.”
Brewed in the American barley wine style, which Wharton says is “a little hoppier than your traditional English barley wine,” Pisgah first made Hellbender in 2008 and produced it annually for the next three years. Now, about 50 percent of Pisgah’s motivation to produce the beer is the brewery’s relationship with Wild South. The regional nonprofit’s work to conserve local watersheds plays a major role in keeping Western North Carolina’s water quality — and in turn the beer made from that water — high.
Pisgah donates $1 from every bottle of Hellbender it sells to Wild South and partners with the group on at least two events a year to help support its initiatives. Currently the lone barley wine consistently bottled by a homegrown Asheville-area brewery, various factors led to it being skipped a few times between 2012 and 2014. But since 2015, it’s back to being an annual release and is slated for a late March/early April bottling for 2017.
“It’s the same reason many of Pisgah’s popular styles often get rotated out: We are still operating on a 10-barrel system and brewing about at the full capacity this system has without wearing out our staff,” Wharton says.
“Pisgah, in a given year, is going to do roughly 32 to 35 styles of beer, and obviously our biggest concern is making sure we always have our flagship brews available to the wider market — the Pale Ale and Greybeard [IPA],” he continues. “But oftentimes, it’s more about tank space and the willingness to give it time. Barley wine is essentially brewed like an ale, so it doesn’t necessary take a lot of time, but it’s one of those beers that’s best when aged and given the alcohol profile time to mature. So there’ve been times where we’ve tried to do that for the patron by leaving it in the tank before bottling.”
Smart business practices also play into why French Broad Brewery has abstained from producing its barley wine for the past few years. “It did do well in our tasting room, but not in the general market,” says French Broad sales manager Matt Barnao, noting that he hadn’t had a conversation about barley wine in about five years. “Add to that, it is a very expensive style to make. So for us, it made sense to discontinue it.”
Despite its absence from the taps, Barnao says French Broad hasn’t ruled out making its barley wine again. The brewery’s goal for 2017 is to constantly offer something new or different from its normal lineup, and if there’s a good reception to the idea of bringing the barley wine back, there would be incentive to do so.
“I think it just takes a brewer’s inclination,” Manley says. “If somebody wants to make one, and people start kind of taking the time and effort to do it — they’re a pain in the ass to brew, just because they’re such big beers — but all it’s going to take is a couple more people to do it and get them into hands of beer drinkers and have them take off, and it’ll be right back where it was.”
Honoring Bigfoot’s legacy as one of the beers that made Sierra Nevada famous, the brewery is doing its part to keep barley wines in the industry conversation. In addition to the standard Bigfoot release, a yearly tradition since 1983, the brewery cellars limited quantities of past batches of the beer and sells six-packs of six-year verticals in its Mills River gift shop. A bourbon barrel-aged version is practically an annual feature and in 2016 was joined by one enhanced by bourbon barrels and hot ginger, another with raspberries in barrels and a third with cinnamon and nutmeg. Furthermore, June’s Beer Camp Across the World mix pack will include two barley wines, one of which is a collaboration with Avery Brewing Co.
“They’re also one of the makers of an American barley wine that’s pretty famous,” Manley says. “They make a beer called Hog Heaven, and the Avery folks were telling us when we were trying to think of a beer to collaborate on that Bigfoot was a big inspiration for Hog Heaven. So for the pack, we’re actually combining the recipes for Bigfoot and Hog Heaven to make a completely new beer. We keep joking that we should call it Hogfoot or Big Hog or something like that.”