Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Back Burner

Southern Tier Brewing Company
Lakewood, NY

Style: Barley Wine
ABV: 10.0%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Outstanding within its style.)

Pair With:
As you may have noticed, Nigel has been in full-fledged dark beer mode lately. Although I’m a hophead extraordinaire by day, I tend to moonlight as a barleywino. As the temperatures outside gradually begin to warm, the season in which strong bocks, imperial porters, stouts, and barley wines are appealing is coming to an end. Therefore, I’d like to sneak in as many reviews for these wonderful styles as I can in the next month or so before they lose some of their luster during the summer months (or summer weeks, depending on where you live).

My latest forage into the wonderful world of dark beer brings me back to New York-based Southern Tier, a brewery that I’ve quickly come to embrace despite one rather unfortunate episode. (Side note: apparently many of you thought I was being petty and ridiculous with my anger regarding Imperial Gemini. Note that I did say the beer was very good … it was the lunacy behind the packaging that I found so objectionable; I wasn’t ripping the beer per say, but the near impossibility of accessing it.) Southern Tier seems to love the ever-popular “extreme” beers, particularly ones that are loaded with hops (UnEarthly, Hoppe, Imperial Gemini, Big Red). Other powerful, darker selections are also available in bombers, but I’m trying desperately to catch up with the plethora of brews they offer and I’m a bit behind the curve … or, to use terminology appropriate given this review, they remain on the back burner.

As I stated in my previous review for Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Barleywine, I’m fully aware of the fact that hops are not necessarily a key ingredient in a fine barley wine. However, I feel they give it a nice added touch, which is perfectly demonstrated in Sierra Nevada’s über-hoppy Bigfoot. Given my track record thus far with Southern Tier, I can envision them creating a barley wine very similar to Bigfoot, with all the various malt complexities that you would expect for the style, but with a boatload of hops to boot. While I will (somewhat reluctantly) admit that a noticeable hop profile has the potential to negatively alter most darker styles like bocks, porters, and stouts, I think barley wines are different. They’re sort of a beer mash-up, a complex and creative style that can be altered more than others, adjusting to the various preferences of the brewer. Many of you may disagree with this stance, but I make this plea to all craft brewers out there: hop up your barley wines … become a friend of Nigel!

Back Burner pours with a mild frothy head that quickly dissipates, leaving a slight creamy lace at the top throughout the drink. A deep reddish/amber hue reveals surprisingly little sedimentation; this is easily the most transparent barley wine I’ve ever seen, though the deep fiery red is quite picturesque (it looks a lot like a filtered doppelbock). Initial aromas are surprisingly weak, and the first thing I detected was a bit of alcohol; not a good sign. Secondary aromas come through eventually, mainly sweet, sugary malt (though not NEARLY the amount of malt aroma you get in most barley wines) and yes … those hops I was hoping for. Still, I’m not terribly optomistic about a brew that is usually quite aromatic, but seems pretty non-descript in a snifter-style glass.

The taste largely redeems Back Burner, though not nearly to the five mug level. Just as I had suspected, hops play a big role, making more of an impression than the malt (though not quite to the level of Bigfoot … overall, this can’t hold a candle to Sierra Nevada’s masterpiece). Southern Tier uses various additions of Chinook, Willamette, Amarillo, and Centennial hops, compared to using two-row pale, light caramel, and dark caramel malts … it’s not often you’ll find a thick, dark beer that uses more hop varieties than malt varieties. The initial flavor is well balanced between the thick, caramel malt (huge flavors of dark brown sugar and molasses) and the piney bite of citrusy hops. The citrus characteristics overwhelm the darker fruit notes that are typically present in a barley wine (some raisin is still detectable), making the overall flavor a bit lighter, though still quite powerful. There is a noticeable alcoholic bite present as well, not unusual for a brew that checks in at 10 percent ABV. I guess the best way to describe this is “mildly unique.” While it’s a tad lighter and hoppier than many of its brethren in this category, Back Burner still maintains the key characteristics that clearly make it a barley wine in name, but occasionally not in taste. Remember that “lighter” is a relative term here; Back Burner is still a full bodied monster with loads of malt, hops, and alcohol, so it can be a bit rough going down and has a strong aftertaste. But if you’re looking for a traditional syrupy, ultra-thick malt monster barley wine, this may not be the right one for you.

While Back Burner gets points for originality and creativity in the barley wine community (and it is a real community … they have their own flag), I can’t rate it any higher than a low four. It’s nice and hoppy, but the malt profile doesn’t step up as much as it should. Any barley wine “hard liner” who feels that the style must fall into specific characteristics will likely be disappointed, but for those of us who like hops and for anyone looking for a unique craft beer, it’s certainly worth the $6-7 for a bomber. Once again Southern Tier has impressed me, though they can—and will—do better.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on March 26, 2008.
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