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Beer Reviews

Headbutter Barleywine Style Ale

Black Husky
Pembine, WI
USA
http://www.blackhuskybrewing.com

Style: Barley Wine

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


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Spring brings with it a sense of renewal, which of course leads to the dreaded “spring cleaning.” Out with the old and in with the new, and spring cleaning in Nigel’s case definitely includes the ol’ beer fridge. With our annual spring vacation coming late this year and the promise of an influx of imports from southern beer meccas Asheville and Charleston, the beer fridge spring cleaning ritual took on an added bit of urgency.

A recurring theme kept popping up as I took inventory: high alcohol content and thick, dark malt monsters. That’s right: I was overstocked with barley wines, imperial stouts, porters, and Scotch ales. Granted, if one is going to be overstocked on anything, that’s a pretty good list. But with the winter of our extreme discontent finally fading into memory and warmer days on tap, I needed to clear out some of that stock.

One of the barley wine offerings was Black Husky Brewing’s Headbutter, which was keeping company with Victory Old Horizontal, Stone Old Guardian, Alaskan Barley Wine, Central Waters Kosmyk Charlie’s, Lakefront Beer Line, Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Barleywine, New Glarus Barley Wine, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot … yikes. Fortunately barley wines cellar well. Given Black Husky’s reputation for crafting HUGE brews and the fact there’s no ABV listed for Headbutter, I’m a little nervous that this may be my last barley wine as it potentially checks in at about 97 percent ABV.

I’ve wanted to touch on Black Husky for a while now, but given my current schedule of five reviews per calendar year, I’ve not gotten around to it. Nestled deep in the woods of remote northern Wisconsin in tiny Pembine, Black Husky has been crafting beer from a log cabin brewery for a few years now. I first stumbled upon Black Husky on tap at a couple of Milwaukee’s finest watering holes a couple of years ago, and can now find bombers at some of the best craft beer shops in the city (if you’re looking, they WILL be in the cooler, no exceptions … more on that later).

Succeeding as a craft brewery in Pembine, Wisconsin is about as likely as succeeding as a caviar dealer in Arkansas; it’s improbable to say the least. However, Black Husky is thus far getting the job done. Owners Toni and Tim Eichinger and their retired team of sled dogs that inspire each brew run a strictly wholesale operation that crafts big, unique beers that are guaranteed to be fresh. Hand-delivered by the owners themselves under constant refrigeration, Black Husky carefully selects what Wisconsin beer retailers and taverns will carry their product. I’ve had it on tap at Roman’s Pub and the Sugar Maple in Milwaukee and purchased bombers at Discount Liquor in Milwaukee and Ray’s in Wauwatosa. All four are among the best, most reputable establishments in the city. Black Husky’s story and theme are interesting; I certainly encourage anyone to check out their website (based on the graphics it was created in 1995, years before the brewery actually existed) at for more on their history and motivation.

Headbutter Barleywine is the latest entry into Black Husky’s Beware of the Dog Series, a limited edition run of big, tasty beers … although calling anything from Black Husky “big” is somewhat redundant. This is a brewery that brews a flagship pale ale. That unto itself is not uncommon, until you discover that said pale ale checks in at 7.2 percent ABV. How about a mild honey wheat that checks in at 7.5 percent ABV? A marzen that’s 7.1 percent, a 7.4 percent milk stout, an 8 percent brown ale … the list goes on and on, and it’s freakin’ BIG. Headbutter is a unique take on the barley wine, one that brings to mind my first (and still one of my favorite) forays into the style, the legendary Sierra Nevada Bigfoot. As with most Black Husky brews, Headbutter is not held hostage to the established parameters of the style.

Headbutter pours beautifully, with mild carbonation that dances quickly from the middle to the top of the glass and hangs there for a few seconds, before settling into a mild creamy lace. A deep, translucent brown hue, the appearance may be the only thing about the beer that falls into the standard definitions of the style.

Aromas begin our journey off the path of normal and into the world of unique. The first aroma I sensed after popping the bottle cap was spruce. And when one smells any type of evergreen in a beer, they immediately think hops. The sugary elements and notes of dark fruit one expects from a barley wine do eventually come through after a warming of the beer, but they are not the primary players. A noticeable astringency would seem to indicate there is quite a bit of alcohol in Headbutter as well, something that is certainly typical of the style and even more typical of the brewery. It’s a complex aroma that I found pleasant given my penchant for all things hops, but it’s not what one would expect from a barley wine.

The unique aroma that steers Headbutter into the hop-centric world levels off a bit as you drink it. While still hoppier than most barley wines, in the end this is no Bigfoot, which I still believe to be the hoppiest barley wine on the market. The diminished hop flavor in comparison to the aroma is likely due to the overall strength of Headbutter. Crisp, clean, and cold on the pour, the potency of the ABV makes this a sippin’ beer, so by the time you’re even a quarter of the way through the bomber, it’s warmed drastically. Which, in the case of barley wines, is a good thing. The warming seems to allow the thick, sugary malt and elements of dark fruits come through, while the hops gradually fade into the background. Surprisingly crisp and clean on the initial sips, it’s not long until Headbutter becomes exactly what it’s intended to be: a monster barley wine. Sugary caramel and molasses become more prevalent, the crisp, bitter hop notes give way to sweeter dark fruit notes of fig and black cherry, and the alcohol begins to bite the tongue more noticeably. In a way, it’s an interesting session that illustrates how quickly environment can change the flavors within a beer. Flavorful and enjoyable from beginning to end despite the changes in profile, Headbutter winds up being a tasty barley wine that falls closer in line with the parameters of the style than it seemed it would initially.

I would not consider Headbutter to be the best Black Husky brew I’ve sampled to date, nor would I consider it one of the premiere barley wines on the market. However, it’s another worthy beer from a brewery that’s mere existence is a minor miracle. It’s an interesting case study in how quickly elements of a beer can change, and in the end it’s a solid beer that will certainly have you feeling warm and fuzzy by the end.

Cheers!


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on June 6, 2014.
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