The status of quality beer has never needed validation among its devotees, but lately there has been a movement afoot to equate beer with wine with respect to class and culinary eminence. The concept of beer as cuisine may cut across many styles today, but barley wine owes its very name—given some three hundred years ago—to this comparison. Dubbed “barley wine” to compete with grape wines from southern environs, they share with vino fortitude, requisite maturation and subtle cask complexity.
The commercial moniker was given by venerable brewer Bass, a marketing maneuver giving rough guidelines to contemporary strong beer, spawning imitators and contributing to an American renaissance decades later. Barley wine is often appropriately brewed as a commemorative or annual offering to demonstrate the skill of the artful brewmaster. Classic English and American versions differ, the former showing some refined restraint, the latter more impetuous and rowdy—a neat metaphorical difference. Formidable in both spirit and makeup, barley wine is a perfect nightcap, but also lends itself well to comparative tastings, given its lability over time and the many interpretations. American brewers’ embrace of barley wine over the past 20 years ensures that anyone can have a soothing goblet or a impressively-stocked cellar at their disposal.
Ye Olde vs. Brave New World
Barley wine is a vestige of ancient strong ales, but more recently of English parti-gyle brewing that was employed through the 19th century. Parti-gyle is a method whereby successive runnings from the grist are made into separate beers, with the initial one being the strongest. This hodgepodge of beers had an assortment of names, with the strongest going by names such as stock (for blending), old (well-aged) or strong ale.
The term barley wine (and malt wine) was noted in historical documents during the 18th century, when brewers tried to curry favor with wine drinkers by hinting at the strength, nutrition and quality of their beer. Whether that strategy worked or not is debatable, as most regions of Europe that are known predominantly for either wine or beer have long been that way, with some crossover of course. This has more to do with climate and agriculture than any sort of class distinction, perceived or otherwise.
With brewing innovations in the early 19th century, brewers moved away from parti-gyle brewing and towards sparged mashes and a single-purpose grist. English brewers had by then perfected brews made primarily from high-quality pale malt. Pale ales and bitters were the most common, but strong beers were often included in the portfolio, barley wines being really just strong versions of pale ales and bitters in many ways.
London and Burton were famous for their pale ales, but also strong brews. Records from the mid-19th century specified brews with original gravities identical to modern barley wines. They differed from one another though. London’s were hopped less, attenuated more and were not generally dry-hopped. Burton’s were more heavily-hopped, attenuated less and almost always dry-hopped rather abundantly. Based on this, it is easy to see that the strong ales of Burton are antecedent to today’s barley wines. In fact, the famous Burton brewer, Bass, launched the first beer commercially designated as a barley wine in 1903, Bass No. 1 Barley Wine. Many British brewers followed suit, going so far as to mimic the No. 1 label.
Today, English barley wines are not prevalent, but CAMRA has ensured enough interest to keep the style alive and coveted over the past 30-odd years. Thankfully, American brewers have more than taken up the slack with the verve and independence that has defined the microbrew revolution in the US.
The story of Fritz Maytag and the Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco is a familiar one. His acquisition of Anchor on the verge of its closing in 1965 is essentially the rebirth of craft beer in America. In 1975, Maytag introduced Anchor’s Old Foghorn barley wine, America’s first. Still one of the most popular and best thirty-some years later, it has been distinctly American from the start, but has much in common with its English forebears in that it is more full-bodied and fruity, and less aggressively hopped than many of its American counterparts. Not to worry, the ubiquitous American barley wine covers a wide spectrum of interpretations, so there is something for everybody, especially hopheads.
A Strong Personality
A well-crafted strong brew should age well and develop some depth, belying its actually simplicity. The barley wine brewer can tweak the components to individualize the brew, but the formulation need not be complicated.
Barley wines proudly demonstrate their alcoholic strength and may be well-attenuated, but they require a substantial backbone to support it. To that end, English pale ale malt may the best alternative to provide the clean, somewhat lean, malty profile and authenticity that a barley wine deserves. In fact, that is really the only grain necessary, if it is handled deftly.
The essential caramel background can be achieved with a prolonged boil, something that a brewer might employ anyhow to realize the desired original gravity. Usually though, the pale malt is buttressed with caramel malt to get the body, flavor and residual sweetness that offset the hops and alcohol. Without that peripheral caramel character, a barley wine would be a thin, alcoholic, unappetizing, lupulinized mess. American two-row barley is a more than capable substitute for English varieties, though it may need a bit more augmentation. To add further profundity, grains like Munich and chocolate malt might be used.
Hop choices depend primarily on whether the brewer wants to create an American or English interpretation, has a personal preference for one type or another, or seeks a diverse hop profile. In any case, hops are used rather liberally, from beginning to end. American brewers usually go heavy on both bittering and late hop additions, with dry-hopping quite common. English barley wine is a little less bitter on average, and lighter on the aromatic additions. Some brewers add hops at many points during the boil to get a continuum of hop goodness. Even German or Czech hops are not off limits to enhance the sensory explosion that is barley wine.
Fermentation and, hence, yeast presents something of challenge in brewing barley wine. Foremost, one must be selected that can handle alcohol concentration of at least 9 percent and as much as 12 percent or more. Anything less would result in a syrupy, under-attenuated wort. Barley wine brewers of yore would “walk” their casks of fermenting beer around the brewery to rouse and reawaken the yeast, coaxing the punch-drunk organisms back to work.
Yeast can also be selected to produce an estery brew, or not. A favorite American strain leaves little to no footprint in the brew, while other American and English strains offer up fruity, woody, or earthy aromas. Barley wine changes deliberately, but dramatically, over time, developing some winey, oxidative notes. English barley wines are especially famous for this, given that there is less hop intrusion, and usually a more characterful yeast at work. Some of these, such a J. W. Lees, are delicious after a decade or more. Barley wines range in strength from about 8 to 12 percent ABV, or more in some cases. Color ranges from light copper to amber to ruby.
As barley wines are often vintage-dated, it is a unique experience to sample several years running of a particular brand, a vertical tasting. Alternatively, try samples from different breweries, as no beer style is more extensively toyed with. In any case, barley wine has a way of stimulating beery discussion. On the other hand, a trip to the cellar on a private evening might be just what the doctor ordered, especially on a crisp winter’s eve.
Anchor Old FoghornABV: 8 to 10
Tasting Notes: Proving that Anchor was ahead of its time, Old Foghorn was the first barley wine brewed in America. Modeled after English versions, it nevertheless relies heavily on American ingredients. Full amber and slightly hazy, it is hopped exclusively with Cascade, including dry-hopping during a period of aging prior to release. Well-balanced, with notes of cherry, apple and caramel in the nose, and a subdued hop aroma. Full-bodied and malty on the palate, with a bittersweet finish coyly hiding the alcohol. Outstanding all around, it is an excellent dessert beer.
Sierra Nevada BigfootABV: 9.6
Tasting Notes: A favorite for cellaring, Bigfoot is perhaps the earliest definitive American take on the style. After 20 years of production, it is still beloved. Tawny in color, with a rocky, resilient head. The aroma reeks of classic American hops. Dry-hopped with Centennial, Cascade and Chinook to give that resinous, citrus blast. Somewhat alcoholic and lighter in mouthfeel, but sturdy enough to be creamy and smooth. The soft caramel and faint chocolate presence rounds out the brew with great finesse.
J. W. Lees 2001 Vintage Harvest AleABV: 11.5
Tasting Notes: From Manchester, England, Lee's is one of the few English barley wines widely available, often in several vintages. This is what I would imagine a barley wine of decades ago would taste like. Amber and slightly turbid, it is aromatically complex, with notes of sherry, treacle, honey and pear, the cask-aged character being quite evident. Hops are submissive in both the aroma and flavor. Earthy and sweet, but not cloying, and easy to drink despite its 11.5% ABV pop. Flavors of sherry and raisin with a rich finish. It is aged in various whiskey and wine barrels.
Great Divide Old RuffianABV: 10.2
Tasting Notes: Old Ruffian is brewed in Denver, CO, and to many is the benchmark for the unfettered hop profile that American ales are known for. Pours mahogany and slightly hazed, with a modest, fleeting head. The aroma is an exhilarating explosion of bright hops presenting pine and mandarin orange. The flavor has caramel candy, malt and spruce, with a chewy mouthfeel. The bittering hops linger in the finish, along with some sweet orange and caramel, and a bit of heat from the alcohol. Remarkable, even by Colorado's lofty standards.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.