We’re approaching the specialty bottle release season for breweries across the country–from glossy wax-dipped barrel-aged stouts to spiced seasonal strong ales and big barleywines in boxes, it seems everyone is putting out something interesting and shiny. At this point in the industry, aged beer in one or more of its various styles has become practically expected for new breweries. Home cellar collectors have become a larger and larger part of a higher-spending customer base, launching social networks to enable trading, standing for long drizzly hours in lines for limited releases and attending festival after festival. Aged strong ales are not exactly a new concept, but many of today’s breweries are approaching barreling and blending is with huge levels of excitement and innovation. With American craft’s glorious mishmash of inspiration and global focus, who wouldn’t be excited?
Today we’re taking a good look at barleywine. First, the basics: to be technical, there are two main types: American and English. The ever-helpful and definitive list of styles according to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) helps distinguish between the two:
“Although often a hoppy beer, the English Barleywine places less emphasis on hop character than the American Barleywine and features English hops. English versions can be darker, maltier, fruitier, and feature richer specialty malt flavors than American Barleywines.”
The BJCP also touches on similarities between American Barleywines and Imperial IPAs. Barleywines set the emphasis on malt over hops, however, and very much unlike Imperial IPAs, are best consumed after aging. Beers like Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA make this differentiation difficult though, blurring the division between styles. English barleywines are typically fermented with a flavorful ale yeast that can impart mild fruity qualities in the finished product, while American barleywines may choose a more transparent yeast. Both English and American barleywines are usually between 8 and 12% alcohol by volume and are almost always aged months or years before release.
Despite differences, we can obviously trace the history of American barleywine back to the UK. Although the style was in existence far earlier, it wasn’t until Bass Brewery released its No. 1 Barley Wine in 1903 that it became distinctively notated as separate from other terms for the style such as strong ales or stingos. Various interpretations of barleywine existed in the UK at that time, but most of our contemporary cues, like the name itself, seem to have come from Burton’s barleywines. These were fairly sweet and utilized a great deal of hops throughout the brewing process, including dry-hopping in the barrels. The higher rate of hopping served (and still serves in today’s concoctions) to balance the sweetness of the finished product as well as to help preserve it during aging. Burton’s barleywines would have been hopped with East Kent Golding hops. These are considered a nearly-noble variety and impart a warm orange marmalade-like flavor to beer. You’d recognize the same flavors in many English Bitters and ESBs. Contemporary English barleywines still use Goldings hops, though other continental hops like Fuggle are also often used.
The earliest American-released barleywines are quite evidently fashioned after their UK counterparts but with consideration for American palates and local ingredients. California’s Anchor Brewing released the first branded American barleywine in 1975 and it may have been the first in the nation. Craft pioneer Sierra Nevada followed up with its own take in 1983. Both beers feature Cascade hops, a classically West Coast hop flavor which is now widely used all over the world. The hop choice likely opened the door for new generations of breweries to experiment with bold and new hopping regimes in barleywine. Stone Brewing, for example is releasing a barleywine this year called Old Guardian which is dry-hopped with new hop Pekko, a varietal from Washington state that has fruity, orange, lemon and mint-like flavors.
Because of its long lead-time and the quantity of ingredients used, barleywines are presented and sold as a specialty product, usually labeled with vintages like wine. These aren’t, after all, your everyday post-work drinking beers! As for where to start tasting, the selection is vast. You don’t have to go very far, especially during the holiday season in order to find a great array. If you have the space and the patience, I recommend buying two bottles of one vintage: one for drinking now, and one for later–six months, a year, or two or more. Most barleywine is appropriate for aging, and it’s fascinating to taste the change in flavors over time. Oxidative processes can actually add complexity, and the boozy alcohol taste in many barleywines will fall to the background or mellow to a smoother sipper. Store these bottle upright in a cool and dry space (out of sight, for the impatient), chilling them only moderately before drinking with a friend or two around a crackling fire or plentiful feast for best enjoyment. Keeping these beers yourself is after all part of the fun of the process-merely by deciding when to open the bottle can mean huge differences in flavors. Experiment away!