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Saturday, February 28, 2015  |   Madison, WI: 1.0° F  
Wisconsin beer and breweries: News and reviews
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Beer Here: Old Scratch Barley Wine from the Great Dane Downtown

Credit:Robin Shepard

One of the most acquired tastes of the beer world is barley wine. These big brews are among the strongest in flavor and highest in alcohol content. The breweries that make them often sell them by vintage because they have such a long maturation time. The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. has quite a reputation for making these behemoth brews. Its Old Scratch Barley Wine goes on tap during the first major snowstorm of the season and remains available until springtime.

This winter, though, the brewers at the downtown Dane have been dipping into their cellar every ten days or so to find and serve a different vintage of Old Scratch. Over the first three weeks of January, there were at least three versions on tap, including a 2006, a 2001 and one with an unknown birthdate because its label fell off while in storage. Head brewer Eric Brusewitz says it's at least five years old and very special. But get ready -- these are just several of the special vintages waiting to be tapped.

What is it? Old Scratch Barley Wine from the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company in downtown Madison.

Style: Barley wines are bold and complex. The English version features malty sweetness, while American versions are usually more hoppy. These beers are rich dark brown to bold bronze in color, and full bodied. The barley wine is a showcase of malt, and sometimes has a sherry-like aroma and flavor (especially in the malty English version). With wine-like strength, barley wines can be quite high in alcohol, exceeding 10% ABV. The Great Dane's Old Scratch, depending upon vintage, will range from 10% to 12.5% ABV.

Background: Old Scratch is made with the British malt known as Maris Otter, which gives it caramel sweetness and lots of mouth feel. Over the past couple of years, the Great Dane has been brewing its barley wines at the brewpub's Hilldale location because of the size of equipment and special features in the mash tun needed to help stir these thick malty brews. Old Scratch is cold conditioned for at least two to three months before any is served. Brusewitz says the brewpub "squirrels away" several kegs of each batch every year, holding them in storage for future winter seasons. That current stash extends back to 1999. The Great Dane always serves its high-alcohol barley wines in a snifter. They sell for around $5/glass.

The Dane's pedigree for making barley wine includes several medals at the Great American Beer Festival. The 1999 version of Old Scratch won a bronze in 2008 and a gold in 2006. That's a significant accomplishment. In 1999 the Great Dane brought home a bronze for a similar beer in the same family called "Old Scratch's Wicked Stepmother."

The rotation of vintages is only occurring at the downtown Great Dane at present. Drinkers should be able to taste different vintages of Old Scratch about every week until mid- to late February, when Brusewitz hopes the brewpub's new Belgian Barley Wine will appear on tap. This brewed collaboratively with Capital Brewery's Kirby Nelson in late 2008 in an attempt to break a record for the highest alcohol in a beer that's made following the Germany Purity Law of 1516 (which says beer should be made only with malt and not sugar adjuncts). Brusewitz expects the Belgian Barley Wine to have assertive malt flavor and lots of warmth from its near-record-setting

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: Bold, spicy maltiness.
  • Appearance: Rich deep and dark bronze with a thin tan head.
  • Texture: Full-bodied, round and warm.
  • Taste: Strong caramel malty flavor with a raisin-like, spicy background.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: Warm, malty with lingering spiciness.

Glassware: This is a beer for a snifter; you'll want to sip, swirl and contemplate the depth and complexity. Pace yourself and appreciate its visual beauty.

Pairs well with: Barley wines are tough beers to pair with food. While they can blend nicely with a very well-aged Gouda or Swiss, I prefer them on their own. The assertive maltiness and high alcohol make this a beer to appreciate as an after-dinner beer or nightcap.

Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four).

The Consensus: A- (excellent) from Beer Advocate and a 91 from Rate Beer for non-specific vintages.

The Verdict: Old Scratch Barley Wine is just a great beer for winter. No matter which vintage you are fortunate enough to taste, expect it to be bold and assertive. This is a beer with bragging rights for its distinctive attitude. The beautiful dark bronze color lets you know you'll be drinking something rich. It also a special treat how the Great Dane is currently releasing various vintages. It makes it possible to appreciate the oh-so-subtle differences in various vintages of Old Scratch.

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