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Anchor Brewing, San Francisco

by Markian Gooley

It's been at least a decade since I had my first Anchor beer (an Anchor Steam, of course), and if I drink them fairly seldom of late, it's because they've been scarce and expensive where I am. The older California brewers, notably Anchor and Sierra Nevada, usually hop their beers heavily; they don't try for a duet of malt sweetness with hop bitterness, but a quiet malty continuo accompanying a very loud trio of hoppy bitterness, flavor, and aroma. Although I enjoy hoppy beers, at times I feel as if I'm repeating a rite of passage rather than enjoying a drink.

By some chance I had never seen Old Foghorn for sale when I was in a mood to try it, so although the label states that it is the first barleywine brewed in the U. S. in modern times (probably true), it's been only a name to me. I'd heard years ago that it is sold in seven-ounce bottles; I thought then that this was to promote moderation, but now I wonder if it's for the balance sheet. A barleywine is a very strong ale, often as strong as a wine, hopped very heavily to cut the malty sweetness, and (preferably) aged for a year or more. Carbonation is light because the yeast that provides it is nearly poisoned by its own alcohol. The quantity of ingredients and the aging make barleywines expensive. It's an excellent ale for a hombrewer using malt extracts rather than malted grain; use lots of extract, add hops lavishly at every stage, bottle, and let it sit for a few years.

Old Foghorn is rich brown: think of dark honey or brown sherry. It smells strongly of malt, somewhat of alcohol, and hardly at all of hops. When poured from bottle to glass, it at first tries to form a head, but then thinks better of it; the thin layer of foam soon vanishes, but the faint carbonation lingers.

The malt flavor is intense, but midway through a sip the hop bitterness balances it, remaining after the sweetness is gone. (I thought of the edible scroll in the Book of Revelations -- sweet to the mouth but bitter to the stomach.) A marked taste of alcohol also keeps the sweetness in check but does little to cut an almost syrupy mouthfeel. The strong tastes make this a drink to sip, which is as it should be. There is some hop flavor apart from the bitterness, but again fairly little hop aroma.

I like a barleywine to have more hops. Old Foghorn has adequate bittering hops to balance the malt, but not enough hop flavor and aroma. The label states that this ale is dry-hopped -- that is, hops are added after fermentation and allowed to leach flavor and scent into the brew -- but I'm skeptical. A good alcohol bite is also lacking.

Old Foghorn is not a bad barleywine, and although I've had homebrewed ones (including two of my own) that are far better, I prefer it to some of the commercial ones. Samichlaus, the Swiss variety that is supposedly the strongest beer in the world, and Thomas Hardy's Ale, often kept and aged for decades like a fine port, both strike me as unpleasantly sweet and cloying, although better hopped than Old Foghorn. Old Foghorn is worth drinking, but brew your own barleywine if you can.

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