The Art of Appreciating Subtlety
by Kevin J. Gary
Forget everything you know about beer: ignore the Born On Date, put away the beer bong, and step into a world where bitter equals good. Meet barleywine, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the beer world. This venerable brew conjures images of distinguished British gentleman sitting fireside, sipping ambrosia out of brandy snifters. But with names like Bigfoot (Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.), Monster (Brooklyn Brewery), Old Crustacean (Rogue Ales) and Talon (Mendocino Brewing Co), it also conjures images of unruly beasts with gnarled teeth and matted fur chained to cellar floors. To reconcile the two is to understand barleywine.
A Brief History of a Gargantuan Brew
Barleywines are beasts of British lineage, with roots dating back nearly 250 years. Beer historians (yep, beer historians!) trace strong beers that served as precursors to barleywine to the mid 1700s, possibly brewed as the island nation’s solution to the on-again-off-again supply of wine from the continent. At the time, these beers would have been referred to as “stock,” “strong,” or “old” ales. It was not until in 1903, when Bass Brewery began marketing a strong beer as Bass No. 1 Barley Wine that the appellation “barleywine” took hold.
Barleywines are expensive to produce because brewers use double or triple the ingredients of average beers. As a result, during the war years and Prohibition, barleywines and other strong beers dwindled. However, in 1975 San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company introduced Old Foghorn, influencing later American brewers to attempt the similar styles. As the craft movement of the latter part of the 20th century erupted, so did the resurgence of the style, so that today American brewers, forever the braggarts, often use this monster style to show off their brewing prowess.
Not for the Meek and Mild
Contrary to what the name would suggest, brewers do not use grapes to produce barleywine. Rather, brewers create barleywines from heaps of malts and hops as well as potent, work-horse strains of yeast. The beers are intensely bitter. With IBUs (International Bittering Units) of 100-120, these beers are nearly 6 to 8 times more bitter than an American macrolager.
But the beers are wine-like in two important ways. First, barleywines are strong — nearly the strength of an average wine. Many barleywines top out at 12 % ABV. Second, because of their strength and hoppiness, connoisseurs collect and age barleywines like wines. Most breweries vintage date their concoctions and expect them to be relegated to the cellar for several years before opening. As they age, the intense flavors mellow and blend. In addition, as barleywines oxidize they take on the character of fortified wines. Dried fruit, port and sherry flavors begin to dominate the palate, as the brew matures with age. It’s not uncommon for collectors to age barleywines 5 to 10, even 20 years (assuming one can withstand the temptation to pop the bottle open).
To understand barleywine, one must drink barleywine. Experts generally break beers down into the following categories, which serve as a field guide for sampling barleywines: aroma, appearance, taste, mouthfeel and overall drinkability.
Barleywines are malty beers where caramel, bread or toffee aromas swirl about the nose. English barleywines are hoppy, but not as hoppy as their American counterparts, where the citrus or resin hop aromas tend to dominate. In vintage barleywines of both ancestries, one finds rich ripe fruit aromas, often those of raisins and other pit fruits like cherries or plums. These aged beers often smell similar to port wines or sherries.
British barleywines tend to be darker in color than their new world counterparts, ranging from deep gold to dark brown, often with ruby highlights. American examples of the style tend to be more copper or amber. In both cases, the color is generally rich, hinting at the robust flavors waiting within.
As with the aroma, American beers tend to weigh towards the hoppy side of the palate, emphasizing aggressive bitterness. The more sedate Brits, in contrast, focus more on the sweet malty flavors, evoking layers of dried fruit, nuts, molasses and bread. As these beers age, the port and sherry flavors become more distinct, although in the American examples the hoppy bitterness is stubborn and rages long into its prime.
Barleywines are chewy, viscous beers that tend to be low in carbonation (more so as they age).
Barleywines are not for newbies, and they are not for those with weak constitutions. Beers such as J.W. Lees Harvest Ales, Behemoth (Three Floyds Brewing Co), Old Ruffian (Great Divide Brewing Co), and Old Guardian (Stone Brewing Co) are not session beers. Instead, they are meant for sipping and for savoring, and in that context, are deeply satisfying.
Taming the Beast
Barleywines are perfect for lonely fireside contemplation, but because of their strength one is not likely to try more than one or two in a night. For those interested in sampling a diverse offering of barleywines, host a barleywine night. Serve party food that pairs well with barleywine. Noted beer and food pairing expert Garrett Oliver recommends meats like boar, venison and lamb, noting that, “The gamey flavors of the meat meld seamlessly into the silky pillow of malt.” Duck, foie gras and beef with mushrooms also top his recommended list. Cheeses, such as sharp cheddars and nutty, aged Gruyeres also pair well, as do the strong flavors of Stiltons and other blue cheeses.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.