Our perception of extreme beers has changed immensely over the recent period of enlightenment. To many, the extreme has become the status quo, given the availability of sour, wild, strong and über-hopped brews. But the original extreme beer among revivalists in America was barley wine, a reformulated interpretation of English strong ales, tailored to emerging tastes and reconfigured into a distinct style.
Barley wine was once a loosely applied designation, and the attempt today to distinguish English and American barley wine stylistically is a valuable reference point for brewers and beer lovers alike. Strong, hoppy ales have an interesting lineage, and we can all be thankful that they have been reintroduced in recent decades. Evocative of strength, barley wine delivers great depth and complexity via extensive maturation.
Current barley wines evolved from strong ales regionally cultivated in Britain, where hops were not a common brewing ingredient until the 15th century. This singular inclusion, and its preservative properties, changed the direction of ale brewing there, leading to the development of multiple stronger, more stable and storable types.
Indigenous British strong ale or beer included Yorkshire Stingo, Scottish wee heavy, and London October beer. All were kept for months or years before consumption, and hops were essential to shepherd the ale through this prolonged period.
At Burton upon Trent, the potent, eponymous Burton Ale became that city’s first celebrated export, predating the more fabled romantic IPA. Burton Ale was a strong, sweet and dark ale. Dry-hopped upon casking, it developed an intricate character during maturation. It was exported east via the Baltic Sea in the mid-18th and early 19th century, primarily to Russia, Poland and Germany. Fortitude and copious hopping were insurance against cask invaders, but also made a beer worth coveting. Among the exporters was Michael Bass, a familiar surname in brewing.
When Russia placed a stiff tariff on beer imports in 1822, the eastward export ceased, leaving quite a back stock of long-in-the-tooth Burton ale back home. It was subsequently made less sweet and more hoppy by prodigious exporter Samuel Allsopp, and it eventually won over the home crowd back in Burton.
Exporters turned their sights from Russia to India, and from Burton ale to India pale ale, and IPA subsequently filled the lucrative export void. Lighter and more highly hopped ale than Burton, it was different altogether. IPA and Burton coexisted for at least another century. Burton Ale faded into obscurity, but never vanished entirely, living on as barley wine, the lees of history leaving a residual footprint on our contemporary strong ale.
The term barley wine was sometimes used during the latter 19th century, mostly as a retail descriptor rather than a style, while brewers usually referred to their strongest ales as No. 1 or Strong. These often topped 10 percent ABV and required maturation to temper the flavors and allow full fermentation, while they garnered lusty, fancied Brettanomyces character from the wood. Cask hops helped thwart unwanted off-flavors. Strong stock ales were often referred to as “old,” or old ale. Burton Ale, Old Burton, old ale and barley wine became interchangeable to some degree, given the whim of the brewer, retailer or consumer.
Bass began using “barley wine” on its label around the beginning of the 20th century. The 1903 label of the North American export Bass No. 1 called it “Bass and Co’s. Barley Wine, The Royal Tonic.” In England, Burton, strong and No. 1 ales became known as barley wine, and the Brett character was largely winnowed out as brewers turned away from wood and implemented modern microbiology techniques.
Fairly popular in England into the 1940s and ’50s, barley wines fell out of favor in the ’60s and ’70s. America, conversely, was in its microbrewing infancy, and barley wine was ripe for the picking by eager artisanal frontiersmen.
Barley wine originally gained a foothold in America in 1840, when Scotsman Peter Ballantine brought a little Burton to his Ballantine Brewing in Newark, NJ. Along with his Ballantine Ale XXX and IPA, Ballantine also brewed bona fide Burton Ale, aged up to 20 years in oak barrels, then bottled and given to loyal customers only. It was last brewed in the 1950s.
Ballantine’s Burton ale is long gone, but it allegedly inspired the modern archetype, Anchor Old Foghorn. Minted by icon Fritz Maytag, Old Foghorn was introduced to the public in 1975, becoming the nouveau prototype. Because it is made entirely with American-sourced ingredients, there is no more significant symbol of the Yanks’ spirit and approach to brewing. Old Foghorn set in motion affection for big beers in North America. Sierra Nevada Bigfoot was born in 1983, and within a few years barley wines were seemingly everywhere.
When the world, especially North America, was introduced to the concept of formal beer stylization, there was often little to draw upon with emerging styles. Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion underscored this realization, followed by the beer judge certification program (BJCP) guidelines. Most beers already had some simple lineage that allowed for classification, but the nascent North Americans brewers were reformulating classics, warranting a separate taxonomic niche.
Strong, nondark beers were especially tough to put on a family tree. Old ale and barley wine were never really different historically, so brewers and beer stylists charted their own courses. Barley wine came to encompass two distinct, or at least allegedly distinct, varieties: the supposedly sweeter, less hoppy English style, and the fully hopped, drier American incarnation. Thomas Hardy’s Vintage Ale and Young’s Old Nick were held up as examples of the former, with Old Foghorn and Bigfoot the torch bearers for the latter.
As North American brewers tended to use their own homegrown hops (and lots of them) and malt, their barley wines were often very bitter and hoppily aromatic, as well as somewhat attenuated. English barley wines relied more on a malty and estery presence, subdued hoppiness and a more vinous, aged profile.
Both substyles rely heavily on light base malt, generally English pale ale or American two-row. The light to dark amber color comes from the sheer amount of malt crammed into each mash tun, slight augmentation with crystal malts (most commonly) or a prolonged boil. The extensive kettle time serves to reduce the wort to proper strength, but also imparts depth and complexity through caramelization and Maillard reactions, creating malty flavors and aromas and a degree of unfermentability. A prolonged boil may even eliminate the need for any character malts.
Obviously, English or American hops would further define the desired distinction, as would English versus American yeast. Patience is a necessity, since fermentation may be long, either due to a surfeit of fermentables and the sluggishness of yeast in the presence of the high alcohol content of the finishing beer, which weighs in from 9 to 13 percent ABV.
Like its forbears, a well-crafted barley wine will age gracefully. In that respect, perhaps the barley corn has not fallen so far from the stalk. Barley wines are particularly excellent for barrel aging, a popular technique among American brewers. It is yet another nod, intentional or not, to the conditioning of bygone strong ale, though mostly it is done now to express woody character or former contents rather than to counteract “staling” organisms.
Barley wine is rarely drunk young, so proper aging is imperative. It must be long enough to smooth out the rough edges and temper the strong flavors of such a behemoth. Archival vertical tastings are very popular among barley wine lovers, so get started on your cellar. Buy them now, and drink them next year or far into the future.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist.