Taming The Monster
Today’s barley wine brewers take full advantage of modern brewing knowledge and technical superiority to alleviate some of the problems associated with the strong beers of yore without too much compromise. Well-modified malt and fully controlled brewing allows for fine-tuned and consistent barley wine. Carefully selected yeast results in wonderfully attenuated beer without too much residual or cloying sweetness. Stainless steel fermenting vessels prevent the growth of unwanted microorganisms. Hops provide the desired balance, with antiseptic qualities an afterthought. Prolonged aging is much less of a risk and is even encouraged.
Barley Wine Profile
Barley wines as a style are a little more diverse in profile than other beers. They are given their name based on their strength, which in general is in the range of 8 to 12 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), with most being around 10 percent. Young’s Old Nick registers just 6.8 percent, but is rich and sturdy enough to do justice to the style. It is necessary for a barley wine to have some background maltiness and body to withstand the higher alcohol content. All have just that.
Most barley wines have a tawny or deep amber color, although they can run a little darker or lighter in some cases. Barley wines get their color from pale malts used in high quantities, and not from darker grains like caramel malt, which is used in limited quantities. Prolonged boiling times, necessary to concentrate the wort to the desired specific gravity, result in intense caramelization. This is an important contributor to complexity and depth, and also adds a little more color.
Most often, they are fermented with an ale yeast, creating a signature fruity aroma. Sometimes, however, an alcohol-tolerant yeast more suited to champagne or wine fermentation is employed to ensure a complete attenuation.
Hopping rates can be quite variable. Those hopped on the low end of the scale, say 50 to 60 international bittering units (IBU), will bring smooth, sweet maltiness to the forefront. This is generally true of the English varieties, like J. W. Lees Harvest Ale or Thomas Hardy’s Ale, but can be true of some American versions as well, like Anchor Old Foghorn.
American examples, of which there are many, tend to showcase a full hop character from high bitterness to the intense floral and citrus nose of hops grown in the northwestern United States. Bigfoot Barley Wine from Sierra Nevada and Old Crustacean from Rogue are classic examples of the hop-accented brews. Lakefront Brewery of Milwaukee makes an organic barley wine called Beerline that also includes some oats.