The name barleywine tends to create confusion.
Is it a wine? Is it a beer? Is it a blend of the two, or just beer aged in a wine barrel? One of our regulars at The Birch, Carlo, a native Italian, in his confusion gave us the perfect way to make sense of it when he ordered “a barely wine.”
Created in Britain to replace wine at the dinner table in the mid-to-late 18th century, barleywine helped its people through a period in which the country was at war with its wine-producing neighbors. Expensive to produce, it was generally reserved for the aristocracy.
There are two kinds: English and American. Both are usually malt-forward and intense beers with an average ABV between 8 percent and 12 percent. They are also meant to age and tend to get mellower and more drinkable over time.
English barleywines are grouped in the Strong British Ales category by the Beer Judging Certification Program, along with Old Ales and Wee Heavies. Known for being malty, they lusciously coat the palate with notes of caramel and toffee.
One of the most famous English barleywines was Thomas Hardy’s Ale, produced from 1968 until 2009. It was said to have been able to age up to 25 years! Although no longer produced, it is possible to find one aging in some of the world’s older beer bars or in someone’s personal cellar.
JW Lees Harvest Ale continues the tradition of being one of Britain’s classic barleywines and you can find this one already aged at some bottle shops.
American barleywines are grouped into the American Strong Ales category, along with American Double IPAs, American Strong Ales, and Wheatwines. They tend to be very hoppy. At first taste, one might mistake an American barleywine for an Imperial IPA, but its emphasis on a strong malt backbone keeps this version true to the style.
One of the oldest examples of American barleywines is Anchor’s Old Fog Horn, which debuted in 1975. Sierra Nevada’s Big Foot came shortly after.
American barleywines began as a seasonal-released offering around Christmas, partly in thanks to the continued support of their other brews throughout the year. Big Foot is still a seasonal release, while Old Fog Horn has year-round availability.
Winter is a wonderful time of year to explore the complexities of this style and will certainly warm you up on a chilly night!