All About Beer Magazine - Volume 23, Issue 6
January 1, 2003 By

While few things deserve legendary status, in the beer world, that description is easily claimed by the most colossal of beers, barley wine. Massive in strength, chameleon-like and wide-ranging in profile, barley wines represent the biggest and often the best of the brewer’s art. They can be comforting or naughty, friendly or adversarial, inviting or intimidating. Bursting with malt, they are often buttressed with a sturdy brace of hops. Barley wines can be stored and enjoyed years after their release, gaining a complexity over the years not unlike fine wine. Barley wines are the headliner, the main course in a brewer’s portfolio.

Ye Olde Strong Beer

Brewing methods have changed or been refined dramatically over the centuries. Even some of the most basic steps in the process were omitted or done differently in the past, to the point where today’s brewers would look at old-time brewing as being downright archaic.

For example, in order to make efficient use of the grains, brewers today employ a practice known as sparging. This is a steady sprinkle of hot water at the top of the grain bed in the mash tun to rinse the grain and eke out as much as possible of the flavor, fermentables, and essence of the ingredients into the brew kettle. This allows the brewer to have precise control over the strength of the brew.

In earlier times, instead of sparging, a method known as parti-gyle brewing was used. Parti-gyle is the art of making two or more beers from a single mash. The grains were crushed, loaded into the mash tun, and the hot mashing liquor was added. After the designated period of time, the sweet, luscious nectar was drained without sparging. This was the first beer of the lot. The effluent wort was staggeringly dense and the forerunner of today’s barley wines. The grain was then re-saturated and drained again, producing a much weaker wort and subsequently a much smaller beer. This might have been repeated up to three or four times to make beers of varying strength. The strongest would be for local people of status; the weakest, for children, women or servants.

Parti-gyle brewing is still practiced today in some breweries. The Belgian designations of tripel, dubbel, and single are remnants of this method, though today’s beers bearing those names are so different from one another that it is obvious that they are made from their own respective mash. Breweries in Scotland and England also use the process to limited degree.

A Recent Designation

The designation “barley wine” is relatively recent; it was introduced by Bass in 1903. Previously, these beers were often referred to as stock, old, or strong ales.

When one considers the somewhat random and inconsistent nature of brewing in centuries past, it is easy to imagine barley wine’s ancestors as being rather interesting in character. Wooden barrels, with their porous interior and diverse microbiological residents, were the universal storage vessels, imparting winey and lactic flavors to the profile of these bygone brews.

The attenuation, or degree of fermentation, was much less than for the weaker beers, as the yeast was either bludgeoned into submission by the alcohol content, or simply settled out before finishing the job, leaving the beer very sweet. Frequent “rousing” of the yeast, a common and necessary practice, would help the yeast to a degree, but at some point the yeast simply give up.

The sour, lactic flavors and the sweet, under-attenuated character was counteracted somewhat by the addition of copious amounts of hops. Hops not only contribute the bitterness to increase palatability, but also lend an antiseptic quality to the beer, an important consideration since it might spend months or years in casks to mature.

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.

Sampling Barley Wine

One of the great pleasures of sampling beers is comparing those from different breweries that fit within a style. This is known as “horizontal” sampling. But barley wines offer the beer aficionado a chance to do some “vertical” tasting as well—that is, comparing different vintages of the same brew.

Barley wines lend themselves quite well to archiving, as they metamorphose dramatically from year to year. Hop character softens, the beer can dry out substantially, and the overall impression becomes one reminiscent of wine or sherry. The myriad nuances are far too numerous and subtle to describe.

I recently attended a five-year vertical tasting of Victory Old Horizontal and found that the character changes were remarkable, with a palpable transformation between 1999 and 2000. Fresh malty and hop flavors and aromas gave way to dry, winey and even oxidative notes in the older versions.

Legendary beer deserves extraordinary treatment. Try laying barley wines away for special or contemplative occasions. A bottle can be shared with a couple of others, or pulled out of the cellar during your more private moments.

The simple act of naming barley wines seems to get the brewer’s creative juices flowing. Named after events or anniversaries (Old Dominion Millennium), formidable creatures (Sierra Nevada Bigfoot and Big Time Old Wooly), questionable behavior (Bridgeport Old Knucklehead and Pikes Old Bawdy), or a visage (Anchor Old Foghorn), they are “moment” beers indeed. I imagine Melville enjoying a Fish Tale Leviathan, or Hemingway, a Brooklyn Monster during creative moments of descriptive adventure.

Barley wines couldn’t be more fun or appropriate for winter for regular folk, either.

Sierra Nevada Bigfoot 1995

ABV: 9.6
Tasting Notes: Produced by the renowned Sierra Nevadamicro, Bigfoot may be the quintessential example of the American-style barley wine. The aroma is a well-rounded blend of malt and hops with a serious dose of the latter. A small measure of caramel malt in the grist provides extra depth and color. The unmistakable aroma of American Northwest hops such as Centennial and Cascade give Bigfoot a massive hop bouquet. Excellent head retention for a high-octane brew.

Anchor Old Foghorn 1997

ABV: 8.7
Tasting Notes: From Anchor Brewing Co., Old Foghorn was probably the first barley wine offered by an American brewery during the recent craft beer renaissance. Rich, complex and robust with a little more emphasis on the malt. Both hop bitterness and aroma is most appealing, but not as hearty as some other examples. A soft, warming, and smooth brew. Old Foghorn evokes maritime images. Could there be a better match for a cool, damp evening in the salty air? Broadly distributed.

Pike Old Bawdy

ABV: 10.0
Tasting Notes: The color is deep reddish-brown and the aroma is a volatile merger of caramel maltiness, alcohol, and rich hoppiness. Faintly detectable in the aroma are cherry-chocolate and smoky notes. The grist does indeed contain some peat-smoked malt. The flavor is rich, clean and balanced, with the peated malt offering an interesting bit of extra character. This big brew finished fairly dry.

Dogfish Head Immort Ale

ABV: 11.0
Tasting Notes: A wonderful floral hop aroma and an excellent hop flavor with just enough bitterness to counterbalance the rich, full body and malty sweetness.. Dogfish Head uses organic juniper berries and vanilla in this gargantuan brew, and fortifies the wort with pure Massachusetts maple syrup to augment the malt sugars. Both ale and champagne yeasts are employed to ensure clean and full fermentation. Also present is a light smokiness that comes from the use of peat-smoked malt in the grain bill. Few brews are this multifaceted. Dark amber in color.