Barleywine, A Deceptive Name for a Delicious Beer

Barleywine, A Deceptive Name for a Delicious Beer

It’s a vast understatement to say that craft beer is a wide and varied medium of styles and substyles. Sure, you know all about the IPA, the Russian Imperial Stout, and the Amber Ale, but what about some of the more obscure styles?

You may have heard the term “barleywine” being uttered at a bar or bottle share and thought, “why are we talking about wine at a beer-centric locale?” That’s technically untrue – the barleywine is an Old World style that’s made a comeback of sorts thanks to the craft beer revolution.

What exactly is a barleywine?

To be precise, the barleywine style belongs in the strong ale category of beers. Typically hovering around the double digits in alcohol-by-volume (hence the “wine” moniker), this style of beer originated in England and is usually dark, sweet, and heavily boozy, with a mouthfeel that could be described as “thick” or “chewy.” Intense, rich, raisiny notes are usually present in barleywines, but that flavor profile can also include incredible amounts of resiny hops.

This is not a beer you chug on a hot summer’s day – barleywines are best drank during the colder months as a warming pick-me-up. These sipping beers taste best slightly warmed up out of the fridge, as the strong alcohol notes dominate the palate if consumed ice-cold. This is the beer analog of a fine brandy or a sweet bourbon.

Are there different styles of barleywines?

Typically you’ll find two distinct substyles of barleywines – American and English. The differences are small but distinct.

American

American Barleywines are usually intensely hopped for a more hop-forward flavor profile. They’re usually higher in ABV, with tasting notes that are more unbalanced and in-your-face. It’s not an imperial IPA level of bitterness, but hops are the star. Some examples include:

● Old Ruffian, Great Divide Brewing, Denver, CO: A thick barleywine with an incredibly malty backbone brought together by an intense hop afterbite.

● Bigfoot Ale, Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico, CA: The quintessential American barleywine. Hop-forward, extremely herbaceous and sweet, and deliciously raisiny as it warms up.

● Old Horizontal, Victory Brewing, Downington, PA: A combination of fruit, toffee, and hop characters make up this robust amber barleywine from PA.

English

English Barleywines are the more balanced of the two, with less of a hop presence and more emphasis on the fruit and malt notes. While both of these can exhibit the same strong flavors, in terms of drinkability and smoothness, English Barleywines usually have the US incarnations beat. Examples include:

● Old Foghorn, Anchor Brewing, San Francisco, CA: Arguably the first English barleywine ever brewed in America, this decades-old beer is a barleywine institution to this day, a creamy rich barleywine with a flavor profile dominated by figs and burnt sugar notes.

● Sucaba, Firestone Walker, Paso Robles, CA: Aged for a year in used bourbon barrels, this ale ranks #1 on Beer Advocate’s list of top English Barleywines – and with a decadent brandy-esque characteristic, deservedly so.

● Mirror Mirror, Deschutes Brewing, Bend, OR: A heavy malt backbone on this dark amber barleywine results in dark stonefruit and boozy bread pudding notes that dominate the palate.

● Bourbon County Brand Barleywine, Goose Island Beer Co, Chicago, IL: Another barleywine aged in bourbon barrels, this stellar ale pours incredibly thick with a complex flavor profile that invokes notes of fig, caramel, charred oak, and tobacco.

With all that said, however, these days there is so much cross-pollination and hybridization that you’d be hard-pressed to find a true English or American Barleywine being brewed in the United States. Some of the best so-called American Barleywines have incredible caramel and toffee notes while some outstanding English Barleywines have a thin malt backbone that gives out underneath all of the hop presence.

Be they American or English, the barleywine style is a complex, strong ale that further reinforces beer as an intricate, meticulously crafted alcohol similar to wine. Purchase a few of these bottles and hold a tasting – you’ll be surprised at how enjoyable these sipping beers can be.

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Allen Park is a passionate part-time writer (and full-time drinker) of craft beer. As a proud resident of San Diego, the beer capital of the world, you can often find him sharing bottles with friends and drinking world-class IPAs at Toronado. Visit his Untappd profile for a peek at his life in craft beer paradise.

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