Barley legal

Aged to perfection, or brewery-fresh, barley wines are an exceptional treat

By Jim Witmer

If there’s ever a time of year to pull a barley wine out of the cellar, it has to be now, in the deepest depths of winter.

While these strong ales can be enjoyed any time, it makes perfect sense that their warming alcohol and full-bodied complex flavors are a contrast to the single-digit temps and minimalist landscape.

This category of beer suggests that it has the characteristic of wine. True – it’s usually in the 8-12% range or beyond and the complexity rivals that of the finest wine, and at a fraction of the cost I must emphasize. But for the most part these behemoths are meant to be set aside for a year (or ten or twenty) to best allow for the flavors to reach their peak. That’s why the labeling is always clearly printed with the year the beer was packaged. For those who love beer, this is tantamount to the rarest cognac.

Barley wines tend to be divided between English and American styles and the American version is more hop forward as one might expect. The English version is more earthy and sweet, and the finest expression of this barley wine is when it is aged beyond three years. In my experience, the American hopping lends itself to much more bitterness during the aging process, so one could argue that they might be better at a very young bottling date when the hop flavor and aroma is still present. Otherwise, let them sit for at least five years.

There are differing opinions as to when to best open your barley wine. Some will say that the brewer intended it to be enjoyed soon after the packaging date. Others will say that the high malt and alcohol needs to mellow and giving it time to do so will allow an even better tasting experience. While I am in the latter camp, I also agree with opening one soon after purchase as well as putting a few away from the same batch to try later for comparison, especially with the American version.

Assuming that this special beer has been treated with respect, i.e. kept in a cool environment and away from light, the results should be an extraordinary tasting experience. But assuming all the conditions are right, just how long should a barley wine be aged is the million dollar question.

In the past, I bought a new release 1994 Thomas Hardy’s Ale to commemorate my son’s birth and aged it until he became of legal drinking age. To celebrate the milestone, I had patiently aged it as well as possible, and inverted it once in a while to activate what yeast might still be alive. Even though it showed its age, it was well worth the wait. It had picked up some oxidation and lost some carbonation along the way (providing notes of sherry which is appropriate for a beer aged this long). “I didn’t know that beer could taste like this,” is the comment I will forever remember him saying.

So just for research purposes, and for you readers of this column, I opened a bottle of 1998 J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale Limited Edition today as it approached its 20th birthday to see what it has become. The description on the label says: “Our first brew from the 1998 harvest of barley and hops…as a celebration of the Brewer’s art since 1985. Harvest Ale can be enjoyed now or laid down like vintage wine for enjoyment in years to come. PRODUCT OF ENGLAND.”

J.W. Lee’s also provides vintages aged in various barrels (Calvados, Sherry, Lagavulin, Port) which are in a class of delicious all by themselves. While you won’t easily find these beers without some searching, the better bottle shops in the area should have them.

I’m not sure how many people open a J.W. Lee’s right away, but I have tasted much younger vintages at the Big Beer and Barley Wines event in Dayton and have found them to be incredibly delicious, especially the barrel aged versions. The rear label on this 1998 vintage goes on to say “we selected the very finest Maris Otter barley and the choicest East Kent Golding hops.” I don’t doubt they did, so what more do you need for a world class English barley wine? Well, of course a water chemical profile and yeast but they don’t impart that information to the consumer. To ferment such a high gravity liquid, there has to be a yeast strain up for the job but that’s a likely secret of the brewer but of little interest to the average consumer.

The bottle held only 9.6 US fluid oz. of 11.5% alcohol by volume so this is not a timid beer. The temperature of the liquid was 48.8 degrees, which is in a very acceptable range for this style. When I removed the cap, there was a faint hiss of CO2 escaping, which was a relief in my mind. At that point, I knew this was going to be good. I poured it carefully into a goblet and observed how dark, almost porter-like it was, and let it breathe for a few minutes. I would not be disappointed.

At first, I just concentrated on the nose and the impression I got immediately was pungent dark fruit and old leather, earthy dankness and sweet aromas. My first sip was similar to the aromas of the stone fruit, raisin-like sweetness was balanced by a slight bitterness from hops to add balance to one of the most complex beers I have ever tasted.

Because this kind of beer is a slow-sipper, there are ever-slight changes in flavor as it warms. The richness and depth of flavor improves with each sip, and unfortunately it was gone all too soon. As a Brit himself would say, “most extraordinary.”

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Reach DCP beer writer Jim Witmer at

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