I've said before, and I'll start this particular post in the same vein that I rarely do individual beer reviews. They won’t happen unless a beer is particularly worth writing about or unless it serves some higher discussion purpose.
So I suppose the reason I am happy to break this for Magic Rock’s Strongman was based on this post I published after the crazy reaction to the release of Un-Human Cannonball from the same brewery. The hype, furore and general geekiness left me in a rather disillusioned state about this beer passion of mine. I no longer knew where the line between actual fan and fanboy existed. I had been alarmed to see tweeters and bloggers I respected caught up in the general hype. Yet, I could not deny, there was an element of jealousy to my dismay. I completely missed out altogether on Un-Human Cannonball and to this day still have no idea what it tastes like.
But, I was much more impressed with the release of Magic Rock’s Barrel Aged Barley Wine Strongman for two very different reasons. First, came in the fact that it was a Barley Wine which, alongside smoked beer, is my favourite beer style. The second came in the way this beer was released. There were no trumpets, no countdowns, no hiring of Jools Holland to create an annual party around its introduction. Instead, this low key affair wasn’t even announced to tradesmen. When I bought this beer from Beermoth, they admitted they had no idea they were getting it delivered. They saw a Magic Rock van and assumed they were delivering kegs to the nearby Port Street. Instead, they turned up in the shop with a supply of Strongman. That is more my kind of low key introduction.
The beer description reads on the bottle as follows:
Our sumptuous golden Barley Wine ‘Strongman’ hails from the same brew as our annual release IIIPA ‘Un-Human Cannonball’ . Using just our house pale Golden Promise malt the beer is then judiciously hopped with Centennial, Citra and CTZ whole hops in our hop back. However instead of assaulting the beer with dry-hops we then carefully age it in freshly emptied Amontillado Sherry casks until its ready to take the stage.
All in all very exciting, so, considering I missed out on the hype of Un-Human Cannonball, I’m going to savour and write about this one as retaliation.
I enter this beer with a little pre-judgment. I love my Barley Wine but know what I like. Sherry casks remind me of Belgian Christmas beers. I repeatedly referred to the taste of sherry amongst my many Advent calendar beers. I'm also expecting a taste similar to the Big Worse Barrel Aged White Wine version I had, that added nothing to an already brilliant beer. Still...
Not knowing what to expect, I'm immediately greeted by the scent of softening apples, cider vinegar, cherry trifle and homemade fudge. Certainly a vinous quality is there, over what are predominantly traditional Barley Wine flavours. There's character and complexity, woodchip maltiness against farmhouse sourness, without a need or desire to dunk your mouth into the amber liquid without pause for thought.
Strongman is decidedly smooth and excitingly multifaceted in flavour. The first thing I will notice in any Barley Wine is a present alcohol burn disturbing what should be a smooth ride, and there is no such fire here. It gives you time to soak up and explore what else is going on.
It's difficult for me as a barley wine snob to not make references and comparisons. On a personal level, I wondered whether this would feel like some of the more "American-style" barley wines I've tasted from British breweries recently that, for me, are nothing more than Imperial IPA's in disguise. It markedly manages to avoid this, whether or not this is due to the sherry ageing providing natural maturation and cooling to what I assumed were big hop characteristics in the Un-Human Cannnonball.
Without the references and comparisons, this is an altogether lovely drink, different with each mouthful. Sour fruits, like a morning fresh apple juice layer themselves over dried figs and heated blackcurrants. The natural barley wine sweet toffee character is more reminiscent of salted caramel with the sugar cane dryness not present. A hazelnut, oily finish rounds off a deceptively drinkable, medium bodied approach. My concern with the vinous nose is cancelled out by the dying hops, using their last strength to overcome the acidity. It's warming, mellow, autumnal, expansive and above all, deceptive.
As it warms, the complexity is dialled down and the predominant flavours brought out by those sherry casks begins to evaporate and the whole experience is similar to an Anchor Old Foghorn or a Green Flash BarleyWine. Something classic. But you want to experience this ever so slightly chilled to experience the true myriad of flavours available.
I only bought the one, and perhaps regret not giving the flavours the time to develop in the way they deserve. Some people don't agree with ageing beer. Me, I see it as the choice between making a promising 17-year-old winger England captain before he's had real chance to hone his skills, or letting him be world class before taking centre stage. The idea of missing out on Un-Human Cannonball is no longer an issue for me. I've found one of my top tipples of the year through something else.