Cellar Legends Xyauyú
“Well, it’s about time,” you think. Finally, info on that $40 bottle of beer you’ve seen sitting on the shelf—the Italian barleywine that comes in a fancy Scotch bottle–looking case. Assuredly, at that price it must be good, but is it good enough to drop that kind of cash, especially when there are so many new beers hitting the shelves every week? The answer is a most-definite “yes.” Why? Well, because it’s delicious in ways just about no other beer is.
FOR CENTURIES, THE WINE AND
spirit industries have embraced oxidation and the attributes it can lend in the right circumstances. Port, Madeira, and sherry are intentionally oxidized to create their powerhouse of intricate essences. And the complexity of a thirty-year-old Armagnac is largely due to the all the time spent in oxygen-porous oak.
But in the brewing industry, oxidation is essentially never consciously allowed. When a cellar-friendly beer such as barleywine or Russian imperial stout acquires positive oxidation characteristics after a few years of aging, the negative aspects normally remain as well. Malt-thinning and staleness, for example, are commonly present; the cellarer just hopes the levels are minimal enough to offset the gains. In contrast, the brewer aims to reduce oxygen at all times and almost never intends for the beer to be aged for years.
At least one brewer, though, didn’t get the memo: Teo Musso, owner and creator of Baladin, one of Italy’s first, and now largest, craft breweries. The craft-beer scene in Italy was essentially nonexistent in 1996 when Musso decided to transform his ten-yearold beer bar into a full-fledged brewpub. This lack of industry allowed him the mental freedom to design beers that were neither confined by stylistic expectations nor restrained by the traditional processes and ingredients found in many other brewing cultures. Some of his first beers used ingredients such as Mediterranean oranges, kamut, myrrh, and raw Italian wheat. And he looked to simply create the best flavor profile for each beer rather than re-create something previously brewed.
So when Musso decided to brew a barleywine, rather than looking to the classic examples, he focused on Madeira wines. Known for their intensely oxidized flavors of caramel, hazelnut, orange peel, and burnt sugar, these wines exhibit the exact flavors he sought. He then drew upon the techniques of sherry and port producers to learn how they so artfully manipulated and maximized the rich, yet difficult-to-control, oxidized notes in their wines.
Over time, Musso realized that to achieve the level of flavors he desired, he would have to intentionally oxidize the beer, slowly and over time. Long-deceased brewmasters the world over were assuredly turning over in their graves, but it took a progressive-thinking individual to realize that in this manner, you could control and bend this process to your will.
What followed was a decade of brewing trials, with each sometimes taking years to yield its result. Over time, Musso tinkered with and perfected alcohol percentage, brewing technique, and oxygen introduction. And each batch was a small, but progressive, step toward his vision: a barleywine with the rich complexity
of a fine port, but with decidedly beery characteristics.
Finally, all the hard work paid off, and Musso’s pièce de résistance was born: Xyauyú (pronounced eck-see-eye-yoo), a 14 percent ABV barleywine that is intentionally oxidized with pressured oxygen—the first of its kind. On average, each batch is aged about eighteen months this way, but much like a winemaker, Musso waits for each batch to “tell him” that it’s ready. He continuously tastes and follows the beer’s progress as it gradually takes shape. When it gives the word, some of the beer is then released directly as Xyauyú. The rest, however, is transferred to barrels and aged anywhere from one to six more years to become Xyauyú Barrel or other special variations Musso has in mind.
Be it Xyauyú or its barrel-aged sibling, the result is beer that boasts decadent notes of toffee, bread pudding, dates, prunes, and vanilla, yet without the dull staleness that’s often found in barleywines with similar flavor profiles. The mouthfeel is rich, not falling prey to thinning like that of so many vintages of the same beer style, and there are zero sediment-derived autolysis flavors (e.g., soy sauce), something Musso attributes to his carefully designed process. To top it off, the alcohol heat is so mellowed by the oxygen that it comes across more like nearly half of what it actually registers.
“I wanted the sweet oxidized flavors of a Madeira, but with fresh flavors too,” says Musso.
Setting it apart yet again from other barleywines is the fact that because Xyauyú is already oxidized to the hilt, it can be opened, recapped, and slowly enjoyed over days, weeks, or—at the suggestion of Musso—months without a noticeable decline in quality. As a Madeira-esqe beer, Xyauyú is sans carbonation. For Musso, the decision of whether to carbonate was a non-decision: “There wasn’t anything to discuss; this is a beer of the cellar.”
When it comes to the versions that are barrel-aged, he decided to mature them in rum casks. Because Xyauyú and rum share such similar flavor profiles, the thought was that the rum would only serve to amplify the beer. This theory paid off, and the rum varieties soar with notes of spice, vanilla, and brown sugar to blend with Xyauyú’s already decadent profile.
Additional aged versions include Xyauyú Fume, aged in Scotch barrels, and the particularly intriguing Xyauyú Kentucky. While it would seem appropriate for the latter to be aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels, it’s actually stored in wine barrels and cold infused with Kentucky tobacco. The final product combines Xyauyú’s sweet, dried fruit and caramelized sugar notes with the earthy, leathery aspects of tobacco, transporting the drinker to a previously unexplored region of the beer world.
Recent vertical tastings of Xyauyú starting with the first bottles released in 2005 revealed that the beer’s shelf life is incredibly stable. The ten-year plus versions are a touch more refined than the “fresh” version, allowing the subtler flavors to show, but otherwise they’re remarkably similar. In this way, the beer matches the Maderia that so inspired its creator, with a decade of age being notable, but still a far cry from its overall potential.
When Teo Musso set out to brew a barleywine, he did beer lovers across the globe a favor by bucking the trend and choosing not to follow the beer-world status quo. Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” In Musso’s case, Xyauyú’s success was only a matter of choosing whose shoulders to climb up.
Left » Author Patrick Dawson threw himself into research mode at Casa Baladin in Piozzo, Italy, sampling a wide variety Xyauyú variations. of
Top » While the “Kentucky” variation of Xyauyú might have you thinking it’s aged in bourbon barrels, the real reason for the name is the tobacco it’s aged on. Bottom » Italian craftbeer pioneer Teo Musso muses over his rule-breaking barleywine.