Hardliver, the annual barleywine festival at Brouwer's Cafe, is upon us: March 15 and 16. For the uninitiated, barleywine is not wine, but a beer style of English origin defined predominantly by its color (somewhere between toffee and stout-black), sweetness (usually a lot of it), and alcohol content (typically around 10 to 14 and sometimes as high as 18 percent, hence the "wine" part of the name). Sometimes people call them Old Ales. Some of them, like Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot, drink not unlike huge IPAs when fresh, though the aforementioned sugar and alcohol content often make them good to drink several years after they've been bottled or kegged.
This year's tentative tap list features a handful of newcomers and quite a few kegs of the same beers from different years (aka a vertical tasting), allowing you to see how aging affects this stuff. Firestone Walker's excellent Abacus from both 2010 and 2011 will be on draft, as will Pike's Old Bawdy, Lagunitas's Gnarlywine, and Alaskan Brewing's Big Nugget from 2009 and 2010. Though my favorite from last year, Anchorage Brewing's Deal with the Devil—a 17.3 percent behemoth that drank way too easily given how huge it was—isn't listed (yet), there will be plenty of other rarities to check out. Be on the lookout also for beers from newcomers to the Washington market like Ballast Point and Almanac (who are sending up something called Heirloom Pumpkin Barleywine), as well as beers from new locals Populuxe and hopefully other surprises as well.
Pours come in 3, 6, and 12 ounces, and you probably don't need more than three ounces of anything if you're planning on drinking more than two or three normal beers' worth. If there's something you're dead set on trying, come early on Saturday, since when a beer gets popular with the crowd, it blows fast, and for the first time ever, the winner of the festival will be decided by popular vote. Get ready, and be careful out there; this is heavy stuff.