From the West: A Barleywine Fest

The time had finally come, the month of February. I had been waiting patiently, knowing that after about two months of non-stop work, there was indeed a light at the end of the tunnel.

That light was Strong Beer Month.

21st Amendment Brewery and Magnolia Pub and Brewery team up every year to offer up a whole smörgåsbord of strong beers. Ranging from Imperial Stouts to classic Barley Wines, this isn’t a month-long event for the weak of heart. As an added bonus, in the midst of this hallowed month, the city of San Francisco holds their annual Beer Week. Luckily, it’s not celebrated only in the city, but spread all around the Bay Area. As the month sped by, I swung by a few events dotted around the East Bay. One lucky Sunday, I even happened upon a reserve keg of Pliny the Younger. That was a very good day.

In usual Hoke style, I waited until the last day of the SF Beer Week to take a look at the schedule. That said, the options were still plenty on this fateful Sunday. I decided that I’d head over to Magnolia Pub and Brewery for the Pre-Barley Wine Festival Brunch and then, when all filled up, move on over to Toronado Pub for the previously mentioned barley wine shindig.

I cruised into San Francisco on BART, got off at Powell Street and caught the bus up and over to the Lower Haight. Watching the bus eek its way up the hills on Haight St. made me glad I had decided to take the bus, versus the previously considered self locomotion.

Upon entering Magnolia, I was pleased to see it was rather quiet. In retrospect, it was 10:50 in the morning, but I had envisioned having to fight my way to the bar. Instead, I sauntered up to the bar, took a seat and gave the menu a once over. Today’s brunch had a theme, and it was sausage. The three items listed were your standard German schnitzel affair. I had all but placed my order when the barkeep casually mentioned, “I almost forgot, we have ONE more rabbit sausage left, if you’re interested.”

Was I interested? Having recently come off a several month vegetarian diet experiment, and knowing their quality of food, I hopped at the offer.

Hah. Get it? I hopped. Anyway…

The sausage, packed with rosemary and fennel, came on a bed of braised pinquito beans mixed with a medley of sautéed peppers. The house mustard was a wonderful mixture of spice and smoke with a serious bitter after taste. The hot sauce of choice was “Youk’s Hot Sauce“, the product of a certain first baseman with chin muff to spare. As though he knew my plans for the day, an entire carafe of water was also set in front me.

I enjoyed several bites before deciding what to couple this meal with. The board was filled with a good share of… well… very strong beer. I’m not sure if it was the time of day, or the desire to taste my meal, but I opted for Ruby’s Red Mild on hand pump. With a serious 3.97 ABV and an IBU of 15, this slightly bitter session ale was a perfect cleanser and pair. Being from cask, it had a smooth, creamy mouth feel and its finish was lightly sweet.

As I wrapped up my brunch, I jotted some notes, swigged the last of my red mild, and settled up. As I debated making the walk to Toronado, the 71 bus came over the hill and made my decision for me. Several stops later and I was standing in front of Toronado Pub, peering into a dim, awesomely loud beer bar. In regards to pubs, the energy of Toronado is like none other I’ve ever experienced. Equal parts anger, disdain and respect mixed with a love of beer, I knew straight away I’d found a new favorite.

This was the 18th Annual Barley Wine Fest and it showed. Though this year’s festival list was only half of last year’s, it still totaled 28. Since there are so many options, Toronado has a strict ordering policy. In fact, the employee’s shirts have the rules on the back, “Order by size and number.” My first attempt was almost a complete failure when I asked for a “3oz. #21 and a 3oz. #8” The bartender looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You mean a small #21 and a small #8?” “Tough crowd,” I thought to myself.

I tackled Magnolia’s Old Thunderpussy ’09 (#8) first. The reddish-brown brew had a very sweet nose with a hint of banana. It was full bodied, a good combination of malt and bitter in taste and had a super clean finish. The next beer was Lower De Boom (#21), from 21st Amendment Brewing. The nose was hop-floral with a mild malt undertone. That hop aroma carried through the sweet taste and finished mildly bitter and dry. It had a noticeably thin body for a barley wine.

The first two choices, despite their top notch names, were not overly impressive. This was undoubtedly due to my love of strong, malty barley wines. Neither beer was bad, just not really to my liking. From this point forward however, things only got better.

My next beverage was the crystal clear, orangish-red John Barleycorn ’10 (#28) from Mad River. One sniff and I knew that this beer was legit. My mouth rejoiced at the well balanced mix of alcohol, malty goodness and a slightly bitter backbone which carried all the way through the finish. Had I stopped at three, this would have been my favorite, but the next on the list outshone them all.

Recommended by a father and daughter duo who had been attending the fest for a decade, I bellied up to the bar and properly ordered a “small #19.” Simply called Barleywine, this offering from Mill Valley Beerworks was simply outstanding. Having been aged in Pinot Barrels, the nose and flavor was comprised of vanilla, oak and malt. In combination with the heat from the alcohol, my mind immediately detected hints of minty goodness, which wrapped up with a quickly fading bitterness. As I tipped my stemmed glass back, straining for the last drop, warmth from the previously imbibed drinks slowly crept into the skin of my face and neck. Looking at my notes and then the time, I figured stopping at an even number like four would be horrible luck and headed back to the bar.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the last barreled barley wine, I decided to finish off with an Old Dipsea ’08 (#18). Aged in a bourbon barrel, this beer from Marin Brewing Company had an oaky nose and provided a good blend of malt, smoke and booze. The mouth was thin and creamy, and was followed by a dry and sweet finish. Taking my time with my final charge, I walked around the rowdy crowd, had a random chat with the dishwasher and found a flat surface to round out my notes.

Moments later, I was standing in another bus, heading north. I had slated a round of disc golf in Golden Gate Park, but the clouds were rolling into the sky (my head) and there looked to be a severe chance of showers (Tecate with an old friend). I ultimately decided physical activity was over rated and made my way to Broadway and Hyde. Several hours later, I woke up as the train I was on pulled into my stop. I slowly got up and made my way out of the train smiling. Leave it to rabbit sausage and a few good barley wines to make for an excellent day.