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Good Old Barley Wines

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Bass No. 1 The First Barley Wine

Welcome back!

It has been a bit too long for my liking since my last post, but I hope the month of January treated you well. There were certainly a few days that a strong beer and a warm fire seemed necessary, but for the most part it has been a strangely mild winter here in Minnesota. The lack of snow and unseasonably warm temperatures have not stopped me, however, from taking part in ritualistic consumption and study of a robust, legend inducing style of beer: the barley wine. During the time since my last post I have enjoyed several classic examples of the style as well as a few beers that are close relatives or variations. In this post I will cover some of the  history of the style, ingredient and flavor/aroma characteristics, aging these beers, and my tasting notes from the beers I sampled.

I’d like to start by discussing the name “barley wine” itself. As you can probably guess, a beer with “wine” in the name is referring to the high alcohol content. The first historical reference to this label for a beer came in 1903 when Bass Brewing Company in England labeled their No. 1 strong ale as a “barley wine”. (Great resource for British beer history) It had already become common practice in Great Britain to label some strong ales (usually 7% ABV and higher) with “old” in the title (owning to the aging of the beer before being released), or referring to them as “stingo” amongst other names. Additionally, a taxation based labeling system related to alcohol content (technically the original gravity of the unfermented wort, which is the amount of sugar per volume of the liquid) came about in the late 1800s using “X”s to designate the strength of the beer, with XXXX being the highest in alcohol content. (Source: Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher p. 151) You can see then, that the label barley wine evolved out of other descriptors, and has grown into the term of favor for the most part ever since.

Further evolving, the term as most American craft beer lovers see it today is, “barleywine”. The legacy of this contraction into one word is fairly recent. First adapted by Fritz Maytag, former owner of Anchor Brewing and the man responsible for its revival, when attempting to get approval for his “Old Foghorn” the original American barley wine in 1976. The U.S. Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol, and Firearms did not like the idea of labeling a product as “wine” if it did not include grapes. Fritz did a little rebranding and brought his label to the state, (as they would allow it even if the federal government did not) calling the beer “Old Foghorn barleywine style ale”. (Source) His plan worked and the term has stuck in it’s condensed form through most uses in commercial U.S. production today.

Don’t worry, we’re getting close to tasting these big beers. Another bit about the naming is that although barleywine (this is what I’ll use for the rest of the post) was the common name for the highest strength beer a brewery makes (certainly not the case anymore with the style defying high alcohol beers many craft breweries produce) another name that is nearly synonymous is “Old Ale”. For the most part an “Old Ale” is considered a barleywine today, though their history comes from regular strength beers that were aged for a long period of time in wooden barrels and blended with younger beers or occasionally served unblended.

So what goes into these strong beers and what do they taste like? Barleywines are characterized by their large use of ingredients, both the grains (traditionally nearly all barley) and hops. Modern Barleywines use only the first runnings from the mash (meaning the highest sugar content) and can range in their final alcohol content from 8-14% ABV. Since the brewers use a larger amount of malt they must balance the sweetness of the beer by adding more hops. This is primarily where the distinction comes between “American style barleywines” and “English style barleywines”. Traditional English barleywines have pronounced malt flavors and aromas (toast, biscuits, caramel, brown sugar, molasses, raisins) with a range of bitterness from subtle to pronounced, but with hop flavors and aromas that favor the earthy, woody, herbal end of the spectrum. Anchor’s “Old Foghorn” created the first American style barleywine, which put a hoppier spin on the English style, and started the trend toward a hoppy barleywine. Along with the malt characteristics of its English style counterpart, American barleywines are known by their unusually high hop bitterness, distinct hop flavors and aromas (often citrus, piney, and resinous). It has come to a point where it is difficult to tell much of a difference between a Double/Imperial IPA and an American barleywine (to much acclaim from “hopheads”).

So with that background information in your head, I present to you some classic barleywines (both American and English) along with a couple of Old Ales and one specialty!

#1 (The Original!) Anchor “Old Foghorn” (English Barleywine) Fall 2011 Vintage Apprx. 8% ABV

Appearance: Clear dark amber with a creamy tan head that hangs around nicely

Aroma: Orange rind, copper/mineral, raisins, slight citrus hop character

Flavor: Candied dark fruit/rasin, dough, more citrus hops, slight alcohol warmth on finish

Mouthfeel: Richly carbonated, slightly viscous chewy body and a bit of tongue coating feel

#2 North Coast “Old Stock” (Old Ale/English Barleywine) 2011 Vintage 11.9% ABV

Appearance: Clear dark amber/garnet, fairly dense light tan head

Aroma: Doughy, caramel, raisin, nutty, present alcohol with some subtle vanilla and cherry notes

Flavor: Raisin, toast/bread crust, toffee, alcohol warmth on finish fairly pronounced.

Mouthfeel: Rich carbonation, rich and chewy body that clings well to the tongue, warming feeling in the mouth lingers

#3 Sierra Nevada “Bigfoot” (American Barleywine) 2011 Vintage 9.6% ABV

Appearance: Clear reddish amber with a rocky off white head

Aroma: Bright citrus (primarily grapefruit) with some caramel, raisin and toast

Flavor: Caramel up front, slightly faded but strongly bitter grapefruit rind, present raisin and a slight alcohol warmth on finish

Mouthfeel: Soft and dense carbonation, drying bitterness throughout, rich body and clings to the tongue and mouth

#4 Fullers “Vintage” (Old Ale/Traditional English Barleywine) 2010 Vintage 8.5% ABV

Appearance: Clear amber with a rocky/fluffy off white head

Aroma: Caramel, fresh bread, earthy/woody hop aroma

Flavor: Raisin, caramel, biscuit (light toast), damp earthy hop flavor, lightly bitter

Mouthfeel: Rich carbonation, medium body, clean finishing, not much tongue coating feel

#5 Alaskan “Barleywine” (English/American hybrid) 2011 Vintage 10.7% ABV

Appearance: (No photo) Clear deep ruby/dark amber, fairly small light tan head

Aroma: Candied fruit, raisins, cherries, dark caramel, toast, light alcohol aroma

Flavor: Sweet dark fruit, soft rich caramel, light citric hop flavors

Mouthfeel: Soft dense carbonation, moderately rich body, fairly clean finish

#6 Rogue “Old Crustacean” (American Barleywine) 2010 Vintage 11.5% ABV

Appearance: Hazy amber/dark copper, thin bubbly head that fades quickly

Aroma: Caramel, dates, very resinous almost sticky piney hops

Flavor: Toast, caramel, raisins, with a pronounced pine sap flavor on the finish

Mouthfeel: Slightly coarse carbonation, rich chewy body with a very dry bitter finish.

#7 SPECIALTY! Central Waters “Bourbon Barrel Barleywine” (American barleywine aged in Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels) 11.5% ABV

Appearance: Hazy amber/ruby color with minimal off white head that fades quickly

Aroma: Rich caramel, vanilla, bourbon, raisins, moderate alcohol

Flavor: More rich caramel, toffee, deep vanilla flavor, earthy toasted oak, smooth bourbon (not hot), raisins, warm and present (but enjoyable) alcohol finish

Mouthfeel: Rich and soft carbonation, viscous, robust body that coats the tongue well.

What a gathering of beers! Each one was a treat and can be enjoyed best either on its own or as an accompaniment to some funky earthy cheese (I tried some Stilton with the Fullers “Vintage” but I couldn’t convince my palate to like it) or perhaps with some rich pound cake during dessert. I enjoyed the Central Waters “Bourbon Barrel Barleywine” the most, but that’s not fair to the others on the list because I’m sure they would all do well with some barrel aging. With that in mind, of the other classic and more widely available examples on the list, the North Coast “Old Stock” won my heart. I find myself more drawn to the more malty, toffee-like barleywines (aka traditional English style) though I really enjoyed the Alaskan Barleywine, “Bigfoot” and “Old Foghorn”.

So that brings me to my final point in this post which is aging. The barleywine is the style of beer most suited to aging due to its high alcohol content and robust flavors. Many people (myself included) feel that a barleywine should be given a year to age before it starts really drinking well. This is not to say that many fresh barleywines are not tasty, but their flavors can be a bit harsh and the alcohol can be overly present and hot. Aging helps to mellow and round out some of the more harsh aspects (especially of American barleywines with their often brash bitterness), allow more subtle flavors to come out, and eventually new flavors will develop. A properly aged bottle of barleywine will typically develop some sweet sherry wine like flavors (think subtle cherry) over years and can gain depth and complexity amongst the flavors already present.

To observe this point, I have purchased duplicates of each beer that I sampled in this post (except the Fullers) and I will try them all again in one year. Until then I will keep them with my other cellaring beers in my basement. I am fortunate that the temperature hovers around 58 degrees and I can keep them in a room free from any light exposure. If you are interested in cellaring beer, try to keep it in the coolest (ideally 50-60 degrees), darkest (no UV light at all if you can help it) spot in your place of residence. Store the bottles upright as this will reduce the amount of surface area between the beer and any oxygen that may be in the bottle and will keep any living yeast on the bottom of the bottle so you can leave them behind when you pour.

Well I’m glad to be back on the horse again and I’m looking forward to my next post. I am sure that it will be much sooner than the time lapse between my previous post. Until I decide which direction to take, enjoy some strong beers while it’s still somewhat cold out, because spring will be here soon!


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