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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 02/21/2011

Festival puts the focus on complex barley wines

By Greg Kitsock
blithering-idiot_opt.jpg Blithering Idiot: designated driver required. (Weyerbacher)

“Barley wine” seems to be a contradiction in terms. A wine is made from fermented grape juice, is it not?

Barley wine is basically a strong ale that resembles wine not only in its higher alcohol content (8 percent by volume and above), but also in its elegance, complexity and affinity for food. (Malt liquors and alco-pops like Four Loko need not apply.)

Like actual wine, barley wine often benefits from some aging. Young examples can be harsh, overly fruity and hot to the taste, but they mellow wonderfully when cellared. (A 2008 oak-aged Dominion Millennium Barleywine, which I’ve just uncapped, strikes a fine balance between a tannic dryness and a sherrylike sweetness.) The term “old ale” is sometimes used to denote this style of beer.

English-style barley wines tend to be closer to the 8 percent minimum and are light in color with a rich, malty and toffeeish flavor. American-style barley wines are higher in alcohol and much hoppier. (Hog Heaven from Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo., is practically an imperial IPA.)

To sample a variety of these connoisseurs’ ales, check out the Barleywine Festival on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 26 and 27, at Mad Fox Brewing Co. in Falls Church. As far as beer fests go, this is an informal one.

“There’s no door charge,” says owner Bill Madden. You simply walk in at your leisure, from opening to closing, and order a four-ounce sample of any of the 20 or so barley wines that Mad Fox will rotate on tap during the day. (Madden has yet to set prices but says samples would likely cost around $2.50 to $3.) Mad Fox's hours are posted on its Web site.

Mad Fox will feature three barley wines that Madden brewed himself: Slobberknocker, a well-hopped American version; Headknocker, a golden English-style example; and Wheat Whacker Wheatwine.

Perhaps the rarest vintage penciled in so far is Corps Mort from L'abri De La Tempête (“Shelter from the Storm”) Brewery on the Iles de la Madeleine, a small island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. According to importer Jocelyn Cambier, the malt for this beer is smoked in an old fish processing factory, which gives it a unique salty flavor. Brewers Jean-Sebastien Bernier and Anne Marie Lachance balance the beer with local herbs such as gentiane, yarrow root and genepi.

“We have the only sixtel in the country that we know of,” boasts Madden.

Heavy Seas Below Decks (on cask). Brooklyn Brewery Monster (two vintages, 2007 and 2010). Le Trou Du Diable Brandy Nose. Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot. Victory Old Horizontal. You can gauge the potency from these names. Bring along a designated driver or cab fare home. The Web site also lists local lodgings.

Considerably more formal -- in fact, it’s the one beer event where you can’t be overdressed -- is the annual Brewer’s Ball, a benefit for the D.C. chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The ball raised $220,000 last year, according to Dennis O’Leary, who co-chairs the event with his wife Jennifer and Lynn Rudolf.

Set for Saturday, March 12 (from 7 p.m. to midnight), the gala moves to a new venue this year: the Stars and Stripes Club at Nationals Park at 1500 South Capitol St. SE. At $115 a ticket, the Brewer’s Ball definitely stakes out the high end of beer events, but the admission entitles one to unlimited beer samples and food, live entertainment and the chance to participate in a silent auction that will encompass close to 200 lots, ranging from rare beers to a Caribbean vacation.

O’Leary expects that 19 breweries will participate, bringing two beers apiece. That list includes some previous participants (Hops Grill and Brewery in Alexandria -- head brewer Kristi Griner is bringing her soon-to-be-tapped doppelbock); some first-time attendees (Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.); and some breweries new by any standard (Alexandria’s recently opened Port City Brewing Co.).

DC Brau Brewing Co., which will soon become Washington’s first packaging brewery since the Heurich plant closed in 1956, originally was slated to pour its maiden batches here, but bad weather has scotched those plans. “We are expecting the brewhouse to come next week, on or after the 16th,” brewer Jeff Hancock e-mailed last week. “The blizzard that shut Chicago down last week delayed our delivery, which is coming from the West Coast.”

He and CEO Brandon Skall still hope to have beer in the fermenters by the end of February, but it won’t be ready by March 12. They do intend to donate a tap handle and a private brewery tour to the auction.

By Greg Kitsock  | February 21, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock  
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