Among Austin beer geeks, the word 'Treehugger' is spoken with awe and reverence. Memories of previous releases are discussed with misty-eyed wistfulness. Occasionally there'll be a feeding frenzy as one of the local beer bars announces that they're tapping a keg of this mysterious brew which they've had tucked away since Eisenhower was in the Oval Office, and once every three or four years strong men will weep openly and women will swoon as Live Oak announces that they're about to release a new vintage.
Get your handkerchiefs and smelling salts ready folks, it's that time again.
Okay, so maybe that was hyperbole, but to say this beer is merely a bit special is like saying Niagara Falls is just a lot of water. It doesn't convey the grandeur and the magnificence of the thing. As a beer style the barley wine is a beast. Usually brewed as a winter seasonal it's a boozy, complex beer, full of malty sweetness and is one of the most alcoholic of all the beer styles, which is no doubt how it got its name - barley wine. It's also a relatively recent addition to the beer spectrum, being only about 100 years old as a distinct named beer style (Bass No.1 Barley Wine was the first to be marketed as such), although its roots go back several centuries.
Strong, sweet, aged beers have been around since not long after English brewers began adding hops to ale, around the 14th or 15th century. Until then beer had to be drunk young because of spoilage, but hops are a preservative and brewers found that their beer last would longer. Gradually it was noticed that this aged beer developed a range of flavours that weren't there before, some because of chemical changes going on within the beer itself and others because of infection from organisms that were present in the wooden fermentation tanks, most importantly, various strains of Brettanomyces, a kind of yeast which has been mentioned in these pages before as being responsible for the funky, leathery, farmyard flavours present in Belgian sour ales and Lambics, and which has recently been taken up by several American breweries.
This ageing process became a standard brewing practice, and as scientific knowledge gave us the information about exactly what was causing the changes in beer as it aged, an art, and not just for the high-end stuff. The poor man's drink of the time - London porter - was often aged in huge wooden vats for up to two years before being drunk.
So let's enjoy this superlative beer. Let me give you a heads up - we're serving it in half pints and you'll be cut off after two... if you can even drink that much! Chip McElroy, owner and founder of Live Oak, assures me that the ABV on this one is 12% and backs up his assertion by saying that it's been analysed and declared at 12% by the TABC, but I've seen it listed as anything from 12% to 13.5% in some places. I think we'll just say that it's 12%-ish. Whichever way you look at it, it's a big, big beer, both in alcohol content and flavour, with typical barley wine flavours of figs, raisins, toffee and sweet malt, plus the familiar vinous character that's often found in aged sweet ales (Live Oak brewed this beer just about a year ago and have been ageing it since then). Although classed as an American barley wine, suggesting a bigger hop profile and more bitterness than its English counterpart, the hops in Treehugger are quite muted.
Live Oak - one of the several reasons to be happy about being an Austin beer-lover.
Jim Hughes, Head Beer Nerd, Alamo South Lamar
“If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink… I’d spend it on drink.” ~ Sir Henry Rawlinson