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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review - Pelican Perfect Storm

Ah, the barleywine. The Mount Everest of beer styles, one often feels satisfaction more at having polished one off than in the flavor. American barleywines can be so intensely hoppy that they need years to mellow in the bottle; English barleywines often go the other direction--syrupy sweet (or would that be treacly, in the idiom?). Unlike imperial stouts, which seem to all tend toward a drinkable mean, barleywines separate to the extremes. I've had dozens over the years and only a few that really sang to me--though the ones that did sang like angels.

Bourbon-barrel aging is similarly tricky. Bourbon is a strong flavor and a sweet liquor. It's characteristic flavor can dominate a beer or fail to marry with the malt notes, giving it the quality of a boilermaker. The sweetness, too, is problematic--add too many hops and you end up with clashing tastes, but put it in a sweet, heavy beer style and you end up with an even sweeter, heavier, boozier beer.

Enter Pelican's Perfect Storm, a massive English barleywine aged for months in Evan Williams bourbon barrels. Does it avoid the pitfalls of bourbon-barrels and barleywine? Yes it does, and the result is a brilliant ale.

The Beer
Perfect Storm is based on Pelican's Stormwatcher barleywine, an immense beer of--I didn't know the scale went this hight--32.1 degrees Plato and 13% alcohol. The Perfect Storm recipe has been jiggered a bit to accommodate barrel-aging--it has some Munich malt and two more varieties of hops than Stormwatcher. It starts with a marginally lower original gravity but, thanks to the whiskey, finishes a tad stronger (13.5%). I asked brewer Darron Welch to describe the process of brewing it--particularly how he handled the tricky issue of bourbon-barrel aging. Although the label says the beer spent four months in bourbon barrels, that's not the whole picture. Rather,
"four months is the minimum aging in the barrels. This batch ranged from 5-7 months in the wood. 80% of the beer was brewed specifically for barrel aging; the other 20% was comprised of older vintages of Stormwatcher’s Winterfest that were married and barrel-aged.

"Getting the balance of beer character, bourbon character, and wood character is indeed tricky. It helps a lot to start with a truly massive beer in the first place, such as Stormwatcher’s Winterfest. I personally think that a malt-balanced beer works best with the caramel, bourbon and vanilla flavors that you get from aging in bourbon barrels. With Stormwatcher’s as the starting point, it would take a lot of wood and bourbon influence to overpower the base beer. I suppose it could happen, but I have had the benefit of a lot of good help and advice from many of my colleagues, especially Gabe Fletcher of Midnight Sun."
Tasting Notes
In my experience, truly wondrous beers don't take their time revealing themselves: you know as the first sip rushes into your mouth. (Thereafter they typically reveal further layers of complexity.) I have had experiences with a few that are instantly revelatory: Saison Dupont, BridgePort IPA, Fuller's ESB. Add the Perfect Storm.

It starts out innocuously--a dense, viscous beer that rouses only a modest head that dissipates like dishsoap. The brewery calls it "deep amber," but I'd say brown (or "mahogany" if we're being showy). It smells mainly of bourbon, with possibly a bit of malt alcohol venting, too. After the skiff of head evaporates, the beer is still, like port wine. At this moment, one is not sure what to expect.

The good times start in the mouth. Barleywines typcially contain heavy, fruity notes, and the English versions are heavy on the caramel and toffee. In the Perfect Storm, this character is present, but so is the bourbon note, and the two form polarities. In between are caramel, vanilla, maple, toffee. At each pole, you can identify the source, but the two meld wonderfully, and trying to assign some of the flavors--that maple, for instance--to one of the other is impossible. The marriage is complete.

It is of course a huge beer and has the consistency of motor oil. With only 40 IBUs, the flavors are mostly on the sweet side; balance comes mainly from alcohol, which warms the mouth and belly upon contact. Like a very rich, liquid dessert, you can't drink a great deal of this beer--8 ounces is probably my outer limit. It's a potion to be sipped slowly, attentively. (Why do breweries always sell these things in 22s? Without friends, you're doomed.)

Pelican didn't make much of The Perfect Storm--just 119 cases (1428 bottles). With such a small run, the brewery didn't bother to ship it--you have to go to Pacific City to pick up a bottle. But hurry: as of 3:55 pm last night, there were just 7 cases left. It sells for $20 for a 22-ounce bottle, but this is one beer I would say is intrinsically worth it. You won't find a better English barleywine for any price. Generally I would encourage you to put a beer like this down for a year or more to let it ripen. I wouldn't do that if you do manage to score this year's vintage--the Perfect Storm will no doubt age well, but Pelican released it at this age for a reason. It will change and perhaps remain a delightful beer, but this is how Pelican wanted it to taste.

I almost never give out a straight A rating, but this is a no brainer. A wonderful beer.

Malts: Golden Promise, Munich, melanoidin, caramel, and flaked wheat
Hops: Magnum, Glacier, Mt. Hood
OG: 31.7 °Plato
ABV: 13.5%
IBU: 40
Other: Aged in 1998 Evan Williams bourbon barrels
Rating: A

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