A decade ago, barleywines seemed ... bigger.
These beers are brewed to wine-like strengths of 10-, 12-, 14-percent and higher alcohol by volume, and thus can be "cellared" and aged like wines. As I wrote in 2006, previewing the second Hell with the Lid Off Barleywine Tasting, "If you're not careful, 'hell' will be how your lid feels the next morning." At that time, I thought barleywines were interesting, but a bit too strong for my taste.
However, other beers have caught up. This past weekend, I sought out a seasonal classic: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, which is labeled, as other American brands are, as a "barleywine-style ale." I savored a bottle of 2014 as well as a 2013, both weighing in at 9.6-percent ABV.
That sounds big, but not that big, considering I also had in my home stash an "imperial" India pale ale that is 9-percent ABV and a double bock that is 8.2-percent ABV. Heck, I have a "regular" IPA that is 6.7-percent ABV.
As brewers compete to be the most "extreme," lots of beer styles are a lot stronger.
Kelly's Bar & Lounge in East Liberty again celebrates some of the strongest this Saturday, March 8, when what's now the Hell with the Lid Off Barleywine Festival marks its 10th year.
Excellently named with a writer's famous description of Pittsburgh in its steelmaking heyday, the "tasting" started in 2005, the idea of then-Kelly's manager Dan Cross.
His legacy lives on, as this year the event is bigger than ever -- so big, says the bar's general manager Deirdre Durant, that they are tenting the rear patio to make room for more brews and more attendees.
They are to include Mr. Cross, whom she invited for the 1-to-4 p.m. session. There's a 5-to-8 p.m. one, too. Tickets are $75.
Sierra Nevada is on the list of more than a dozen breweries that will be represented, including four from this region.
Ms. Durant says that in addition to 35 barleywines -- and only barleywines -- on tap, the bar will break out some of its cellar holdings of more than 200 different bottled barleywines.
They'll once again be serving vertical flights -- one brand from different years -- as well as flights of fancy creatively comprised of various brands.
To help revelers handle all that hootch, there'll be food, too -- Kelly's Mac-n-Cheese, Pittsburgh Bites (boneless wings), pierogies, plus frites, soft pretzels, cheese and chocolates.
One star of the show looks to be Meadville's Voodoo Brewing Co., which will be pouring a rare sixtel, or one sixth-barrel, of "The K13," a 13-percent-ABV American barleywine that aged for 18 months in Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels.
They'll also pour Gratitude from Larimer's East End Brewing, Batch 2000 Black Barleywine from Lawrenceville's Church Brew Works and Liquid Courage, a wet-hopped Ohio collaboration by Fat Head's and Jackie O's.
Ms. Durant says they'll save some of each for both sessions of the fest, which she says is nearly without peer. San Francisco's Toronado Pub has held a barleywine blowout for 21 years now, but East End's Scott Smith prefers this one. Having participated in every HWTLO, he says, "It's always been a special beer festival for me. Where can you have this many small samples of barleywine, table service. ... There's a danger to it because you've been sitting for two hours -- and then you stand up."
Barleywine also remains special to him, in part because he can sip a cellared 2006 and muse on how he's changed since then, too. "It's still in my mind the original big beer."
Also attending will be the artist Wayno, who once again designed the poster for the fest. At each session, he'll have for sale 20 signed and numbered 11-by-17-inch prints ($25). "I think this year's design is our best yet," says the artist. Also for sale will be T-shirts ($15).
For more, go to https://www.facebook.com/events/203914716470336. Tickets are available at Kelly's at 6012 Penn Circle South, Pittsburgh 15206 (412-363-6012), at East End Brewing and online at showclix.com/event/HWTLO2014.
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.