As Winter knocks on area doors, heartier beers become more appealing. One of these robust styles is the strong, rich, and hearty English Barleywine. Its name derives from being the alcoholic equivalent of wine but made from barley. An important British 1736 book on the art of brewing mentions strong ales brewed with “a vinous character” for wealthy households.
Before the recent advent of the imperial styles, Barleywines were the most powerful of ales. While there is evidence of brewing centuries earlier, the first documented Barleywine was Bass No. 1 Barley Wine in 1903. On the bottle it said it “has the character of a rare wine.” The first American version was Anchor Brewing’s Old Foghorn in 1975.
Barleywines need a nice brandy snifter to enjoy the full aroma and sip the rich contents. They can be aged for several years, imparting a smoothness and mellowness, while rounding out their sharp edges and developing a rich complexity that subtlety changes over time.
Barleywines have rich and strongly malty bouquets, often with notes of caramel, fruitiness, especially dark fruits, and mild to moderate hops. Aromas can include low to medium alcohol which tend to fade with age as sherry and port-like qualities emerge and often dark fruits come to the forefront.
Flavors are normally strong, intense and complex with a wide palate that can include nutty, toast, bisquity, caramel, toffee, and/or molasses. They have a moderate to high malt sweetness but may finish with dryness. Often there is a moderate to high dried-fruitiness. Hop bitterness ranges from mild to somewhat bitter with West Coast versions being hoppier than East Coast and British examples.
Barleywines are usually full-bodied and chewy with a velvety texture. A smooth alcoholic warmth should be present but balanced. Alcohol ranges from 7-15 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) with 35-70 International Bittering Units (IBUs).
For the brewer barleywines are difficult and costly to produce involving large amounts of ingredients, primarily barley, and time, a fifth important ingredient added to the basic barley, hops, water and yeast.
Horn Dog (10.2 percent alcohol by volume, ABV) is brewed by Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick. The nose of dark fruit and molasses presages a medium sweet molasses and malt front. The middle displays a light prune with the sweetness continuing, balanced a bit by slight notes of alcohol. The alcohol grows and becomes more apparent in the finish and increases to medium in the aftertaste but is well integrated as molasses comes to the forefront. Ratings: 9/9.
Barleywine Ale (11 percent ABV), made by Duck Rabbit Craft Brewery in Farmville, N.C., has a sweet subdued caramel malt aroma with a hint of alcohol. The modestly sweet malt front of this brew is followed by a medium caramel malt middle with a touch of alcohol. A muted dark fruit compote enters in the finish, segueing into an aftertaste where the alcohol increases to medium and is joined by a delicate bitter hop. This 2-year-old beer probably would improve with one more year of aging. Ratings: 8/8.5.
Third Coast Old Ale ( 10.2 percent ABV) is produced by Bell’s Brewery in Comstock, MI. The caramel malt and alcohol nose precedes a medium caramel, sweet malt front which continues into the middle. The finish adds restrained alcohol and bitter hops both of which elevate in the aftertaste as the malt fades. There are lingering bitter hops with a splash of well blended alcohol in this 1-yearold Barleywine. Ratings: 8.5/9.
Bigfoot Ale (9.6 percent ABV) is brewed in Chico, Calif., by Sierra Nevada Brewing. In two vertical tastings of Bigfoot, years apart, this Barleywine seemed to improve with age, peaking at 4-6 years old, and then starting a long, slow decline. A 4.5-year-old Bigfoot opens with a bouquet of moderate bitter hops, medium caramel, and genial citrus. The medium caramel front also has dashes of bitter hops, citrus, and apricot with the malt and apricot continuing in the middle. The finish adds a restrained raisin, peach, and an partly integrated but obvious bitter hop. The caramel malt and hops wane in the aftertaste while the raisin flavor lingers. Ratings: 8.5/8.5.