Red or White? No Thanks I’ll Have Barley (Wine)

by: BeerAdvocate on 01-31-2001
Ah ... barleywine the sweet elixir worthy of a beer god. Lively and fruity, sometimes sweet sometimes bittersweet but always alcoholic. A brew of this strength (most around 8-13% abv) and complexity can be a challenge to the palate, young ones can be rough to the taste buds with the 3 to 4 times the amount of hops to flavour and bitter the brew other can been sweet to the tongue. Just imagine Boston at around 32°F with freezing rain that chills you to the bone nearing the point of torture, what do we turn to ... barley wine. Looking for a pairing with some Belgian chocolate or aged cheddar from Vermont ... barley wine it is. These are beers that can be aged, most have vintage dates and possibly could be cellared for many year and even decades. But to hell with holding on to them we’re getting desperate for a soul warming brew. Here is a little history on the style.

Beers of this strength have been traced back to the Vikings and were usually consumed before the pillaging of other civilizations though these beers may have been flavoured with spruce or other odd, perhaps hallucinogenic plants. Brewed throughout Britain as a farmhouse ale unusually enough the term "barley wine" had not been used until early 1900's, most brewers through out medieval to colonial days used other terms like "old," "stock" or "strong" to designate that it was a beer with a high alcoholic strength. These beers were brewed from the first running of the mash which will produce a beer with a higher alcohol content, the second and third runnings made "small" or table beers ... some so weak they were pawned off for the children to drink.

One of the first know Barleywines came from the Burton England firm of Bass, Ratcliff, and Gretton in 1854 launched a Strong Burton Ale known as No. 1, and the materialization of barley wine as a distinct style came forth. Bass used to brand its ales with numbers back then, the larger numbers indicating beers of lesser alcohol content ... No. 1 was designated as the strongest. In 1903 the words "Barley Wine" appeared on the label to even further imprint the style into the mind of beer lovers. Previous years the Brits had been devastatingly hit with heavy taxation of alcohol so Bass as well as other had snuffed out their strong beers. Though one had the balls to brew the real stuff. Back in 1968 Eldridge Pope Brewery wanted to brew something special so they commemorated Thomas Hardy’s 40th anniversary of his death and brewed a kick ass beer that had held the record of the strongest beer in 1973 weighing in at 12% abv. Sadly this beer has meet consolidation shock and has been cut from the lineup though American importer Phoenix Importers has been trying to strike a deal to contract the brand for 2001.

English varieties are quite different from the American efforts, what sets them apart is usually the American versions are insanely hopped to make for a more bitter and hop flavoured brew using American high alpha oil hops. English barleywines typically are more rounded and balanced between malt and hops with a slightly lower alcohol % though this is not always the case.

A few American brewers at the sparking of the Micro Beer Revolution jumped right into the style and with their usual big American way of doing things bigger and better. Anchor Brewing was the first with Old Foghorn back in 1976, Sierra Nevada’s Big Foot was next in 1985. Others followed trying to be bigger than the last guy Dogfish Head’s Immort Ale at 11.0% abv to name one. But most memorable is from Boston Beer Co with the effort to brew the strongest beer in the world the Triple Bock that rests around 17.5% abv, a brew without carbonation and the addition of maple syrup for flavour and more alcohol then aged in used whiskey barrels. To top that they brewed Sam Adams Millennium which was knocking on the door of 20% abv! This also had the addition of maple syrup and was aged in bourbon barrels instead of whiskey. Millennium was a limited bottling, only 3,000 bottles, and was sold for the outrageous price of $200 a pop. These two brews are hard to be considered beer, they are of malt and hops though they are not carbonated and are consumed like a port or sherry.

Here are a few suggested barleywines:

Fuller’s Vintage Ale (UK) – Perhaps one of the best to come from England, perfectly balanced and very drinkable. Bottles are numbered and boxed with the vintage date, a bit pricey but worth it at around $5-7 a bottle (Victorian pint 18.9oz).

Rogue Old Crustacean (US) – Cult classic amongst the hardcore beer geeks, one of the hoppiest barleywines in the world. Ages very well, about $2.50-4 a bottle (sadly only a 7 oz nip bottle).

JW Lees Vintage Harvest Ale (UK) – Brewed once a year in the fall richly sweet of malt, ages extremely well. We have had bottles of this dating back to 1988 that had no aging flaws. About $4-5 a 12oz bottle.

Coincidence, Redbones BBQ in Somerville during the month of February will be showcasing Barleywines on tap. The infamous brewers, Hair of the Dog from Portland, OR sent a keg of their Adam Bier (10% alcohol by volume). Look for local North East brews like Cambridge Brewing’s Blunderbuss Barleywine, Brooklyn’s Monster and McNeil’s Buck Snort. For those hardcore beer geeks there will be a share of North West Barleywines. Samplers of 5 - 2.5oz pours are $5.00, a 10oz glass is $3.75. As usual visit for more info and frequent updates on what’s on tap. Other places to find barleywine on tap ... Boston Beer Works will have a beefed up version of their Hercules Ale, usually around 8% abv but now 11.5% abv. Commonwealth Fish & Beer Co. has the world famous award winning Special Old Ale, an English style and cousin of barleywine that is aged several months.

A word of advice, barleywine needs the utmost respect ... drink this stuff like it's water and it will kick your ass.
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