Bell’s Brewery Third Coast Old Ale: A Barleywine for the Ages

Bell’s Brewery was founded by Larry Bell in 1983 in Kalamazoo, Michigan (hence the third coast) as a supply shop for home brewers. In 1985, Mr. Bell began to sell his own homebrew, brewed in a soup kettle (!) in very, shall I say, primitive conditions. Apparently, his beer was really good, because by 1989, he and his few employees were bottling and selling lots of beer. By 1993, Bell’s Brewery entered the wholesale market, and the rest is history. These days, Bell’s is known for creating full-bodied ales. Something about the company that I find very special, is that they own their own farm, and grow their own barley! This demonstrates the commitment to beer that Bell’s has, and it certainly makes the beer alluring and attractive to try.

Third Coast Ale (10.2% ABV) is a barleywine, which is a particular style of beer known for high alcohol content, often-fruity flavors, and in the US, hoppy bitterness. The type of beer called old ale (as Bell’s names theirs) is considered by some to be the same as a barleywine. I am very interested in barleywine, because it is described by ancient Greek writers as a winey drink fermented from barley. Later in history, in the 1700s in Europe, when France and England had some bitter conflicts, the wealthy and the noble enjoyed barleywine as a strong (meaning high in alcohol content) bridge between ale and wine. But what really distinguishes a barleywine (and thus an old ale) is the style’s specific gravity. This term refers to the density of the wort, as compared to water, and it has to do with how much sugar and alcohol remain in the final product (in basic terms). Simply put, the more alcohol in a liquid, the less dense it is, when compared to water. Barleywine has a high specific gravity, since barleywines are full of fruity, sugary goodness. But they also have a high alcohol content. This means that there is a hell of alot of yeast, converting a hell of alot of sugar into a hell of a lot alcohol in barleywine. Barleywine is a bit of an acquired taste, but once you try a few, you will be hooked.

Our Review

Bottle: I find it hard to put into words, but I find this bottle to be really classy. Maybe it is the brown glass, the beige-purple label, the brown lettering, and the muted tones, but something about this bottle really seems to indicate something special and upscale.

Pour: The color is a profound brown with a strong element of red, and a touch of beautiful amber. Barleywines traditionally pour thinner heads, but this one is a full two-fingers thick, and the color of khaki pants that have been across the African bush. While the entire head dissipates slowly, a small cap remains throughout the entire drinking session, leaving medium to heavy lacing. This is a truly beautiful, luscious, sensual head.

Aroma: The aroma is complex and full, with a strong bouquet of dark, fresh, sweet fruits, like blackberries, plums, and raisins. There is a definite undertone of figs and dates. Along with the fruit-forward elements is the clear bouquet of yeasty bread, oats, roasted, malted grains, toffee, and even a hint of caramel. This is a rich, complex aroma.

Flavor: There is an undeniable malty tone to this ale’s flavor, and because it is a barleywine, the strong flavor of ethyl alcohol holds hands with every other flavor. Those other flavors include dark fruit leading the charge: prunes and raisins assault your tongue, second only to malt. This is a very sweet ale, but not quite to the point of being cloying (although dangerously close). Because American barleywines include more hops than their European cousins, there is a note of bitterness on the finish. I love hops, but my one problem with this ale is that the hops produce the desired bitterness, without the hops-like complexity of citrus, pine, and grass found in so many American IPAs.

Mouthfeel: Wow. The body is very thick and creamy, coating the tongue. As with most barleywines, though, the carbonation level is low, and behind the thickness is a sort of acidic feel (not taste) that thins out the body on the tongue. On the finish, the sweetness and bitterness stick to the taste buds.

Structure: This ale’s structure is solid and dense. You could age it for a few years in a cool, dark cellar. I suspect that aging would mellow a bit of the sweetness and bitterness, and bring out the complexities of the fruit phytochemicals in the flavor. I would like to buy a case and store it for 5 or 6 years.

Food Pairing: Since a good barleywine like this really does bridge the gap between ale and wine, I would pair it with succulent meat like roast duck; tart, aged cheeses like Stilton; and vegetables like asparagus with a rich Hollandaise sauce drizzled on top.

Overall Rating Out of 5 Possible Beer Mugs:

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