I thought of doing this as a beer profile, but I think the nuances would be lost. Comparing years on any beer is a special form of analysis. I used to think of 120 as an overly hoppy, somewhat barley wine-ish brew. I was skeptical when they claimed it ages well. I decided to test that. I am VERY happy to report I was wrong… sort of.
Before I even tasted them, smelled them, savored them, I added this caveat: I find hops tend not to age well when they become the focus. A little cardboard is one thing among the sweet, flavor-filled, well aged Bigfoot or Foghorn. I find it adds texture, a pleasantness. But when hops are THE balance factor, unless you’re brewing one of those Belgian brews that use specific type of hops that age well, uh, no. I have done assessments of up to 10 different years of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot. Thomas Hardy too. I have an almost 20 year bottle of Hardy Big Bob gave me from Big Bob’s Barleywine Bash just before he died. Some day we’ll savor it. Almost hate to: once it’s gone that’s it. Like Big Bob dying all over again.
So let’s see how aged 120’s stack up. BARELY aged. Not sure I’d want a 20 year 120 due to hops, but I’d be open to the experience. My original plan was to have 3, but Midtown in Nashville stocked them wrong. They had them labeled as 17, 18 and 20. I ended up with 2 2020’s and one 2016. But 2 days later found a 2019. So 16 v. 19 v. 20.
The comparison was, well, educational. We’ll start with mutual characteristics, then move on to 2020, and from there go back in time.
No fermentation characteristics in any of them. Two of them have a dry, yet slightly sweet, sense to them. Makes for an interesting balance, enticing. One? Well, we’ll get to that. I do have a question: does Dogfish vary they recipe for 120? That might explain the 2019.
Let’s see what 1 year, then 4 years, does to 120.
Dogfish 120 2020
Aroma- more hop note that’s also fruity: orange-ish/tangerine-ish, with a hint of sweet, malt deep and wonderful. Pale, but as it warms caramel malt-like sense comes out a hint; but nowhere near as much as the 16. The balance is to the hops, but not not some big whop to the sinus.
Appearance- yellow, head lingers like light film on top of the quaff. Tiny bubbles that also hover around meniscus/edge glass. Pure white head. Hazy, light does not shine through. Close to golden yellow: Fort Knox-like.
Flavor- the hops are sharp and ever present. They dominate; far more present than the 2016. The bitter is strong, in comparison. The malt is supportive, pale-like but merely a soft symphony for the hops. But the hops are mostly all bitter. Hop flavor is indistinct. Just a hint sweet. The balance is hop forward but not as aggressive as an Imperial IPA. Just a hint astringent, but far more than the 2016. It is by no means unpleasant. Aftertaste is hops and alcohol, but for high abv remarkably gentle.
Mouthfeel- very light carbonation: yet prickly; tad carbonic. Malt is smooth and very slightly white bready: sticks to roof of mouth like very light wet white bread. Hops linger there too. Hops simply bitter; but not overwhelmingly so. High side medium body: surprising considering all there is here to assess.
Dogfish 120 2019
Aroma- slight cardboard mixed with sweet sense. Just a little more caramel malt sense mixed with pale. Hops are citrusy, orange-like, yet some spice. Tad pepper-ish. Does not seem to be a pepper phenol: more hop-related.
Appearance- a hazy copper-ish brew with pillow head that holds; a few small bubbles. Foam clings to side of glass. Head is slightly off white.
Flavor- cardboard with strong sweet sense. Strong bitter too. They do not mesh well. Malt is, again tad caramel mixed with pale. A lot of malt. The sweet and the caramel dominate flavor. Bitter dominates more in this one; aged hops that did not age well. As it warms cardboard sense gets stronger. Aftertaste that lingers forever is cardboard-ish like hops and sweet.
Mouthfeel- light carbonation, however body on this one seems full: more than either of the other examples. Sweet clings to roof of mouth. Tad white sugary.
Dogfish 120 2016
Aroma- Caramel sense is deep, very sweet, wine like, almost brandy-ish. Hop notes have faded to nothing. Malt has headed away from pale to slightly darker sense, as in caramel.
Appearance- Darker, deep tan, head fades to nothing except small bubbles on the meniscus. Hazy: little clarity. Head is pure white. Light brown: Scotch Ale-ish in appearance. Balance is towards a sweet, yet cardboard-ish caramel.
Flavor- the hops have mellowed; just a tad cardboard, and the caramel sense both pleasantly covers and mixes with the cardboard. Finish after taste is a brandy/cardboard-ish mix. the bitter/sweet/cardboard mix into a gentle aged quaff that is pleasing. It really is a little more Scotch Ale-like. What hops are there are less bitter than fruity: orange-ish. The bread sense to the malt is now like slight rye, but not rye malt.
Mouthfeel- more carbonation: light medium. Just a little slick. Astringency and sweet cling to the palate: mostly roof of mouth. The bread sense too. The sweet is almost brown sugar-like. The body seems more full, due to cardboard sense.
I really can’t fault either 16 or 2020, and despite my previous comments, the hops aged well. I admit that this is nowhere near as hoppy as some: some brewers seem to think. However, the 19 was all I feared. Almost undrinkable. Not stored well? The hops cardboard nature due to age combined with a bitter that almost masked the malt… so much so it really ruined the experience.
I am assuming the 16 and the 20 were better representations of 120. Either that or they changed their recipe. I know how aging can darken a brew, but the 16 was darker than I expected.
Many brewers of barleywine seemed to follow the 19’s pattern: “beat the taste buds with hops no matter how bad or cardboard the hops get.”
Being a critic of overly hopped barleywines and aging anything overly hopped, I was amazed how well 16 had aged. Barleywine is such a immensely luscious quaff as it is. Just seems “pour in the hops” is more than a little mindless.
Praise the beer Gods Dogfish didn’t do that in the 16 or the 20. The jury is out on the 19.
But IS it barleywine? Is is a double or triple IPA? Dogfish 120 kind of needs a style of its own. Neither Barleywine, nor Imperial IPA, it can be magnificent. When it’s right this quaff could get me in serious trouble. It is a masterpiece. Kudos Sam. However if the recipe is altered reconsider that 19 edition. But I suspect just poor storage/shipping.