Wait, Barley-what? Is this really a beer? Despite the name implication and what many may think, yes, this is indeed a beer style! Quite possibly one of the most intense styles around, they are called Barleywines because they can be just as strong as wine if not more so!
American Barleywines are different than the English variety in that American versions have a far greater hop addition and generally a stronger alcoholic presence. Its color can range from light amber to dark brown, but some recent interpretations have even been pitch black. Their high alcohol level usually ranges from 8% to as high as 15% and can be visible in the form of “legs” when the beer is swirled in the glass. The body is usually full to an almost chewy wine-like feel, Barleywines have very rich and intense malt profiles. Hop character is usually moderate to assertive that more often than not, creates rather high levels of bitterness and oily citrus-like resin notes at it’s freshest. Because of their strength and complexity, they offer such a wide range of flavors and aromas that are typically in the form of intense malt flavors that put off fruity esters, dry bready neutrals, and caramel-like sweetness variations. The alcohol should be noticeable, but not sharp or harsh.
Brews of this strength and complexity have the potential to really turn off many people into trying this style, though most Barleywine fans like to cellar their favorites and age them like fine wine to a point where this beer style’s potential really blossoms into a smoother, yet sometimes richer example of what a Barleywine can really be like.
As mentioned before, a new trend has gained massive popularity in recent years that adds an even bigger character and richness to the style among others. A brewer will age the Barleywine in barrels that, at one point, held bourbon or whiskey, or even sometimes red wine. This process of barrel-aging has created Barleywines that have even more complexity, richness, and strength, often higher alcohol levels and longevity for aging. Due to the relatively limited amounts of barrels that brewers have access to, these versions often tend to be limited release seasonal beers or one-offs that the brewer will never make again, so they are rare and often challenging for the consumer to find at times. Hard to believe that an already powerful and assertive beer such as a Barleywine can get even more distinction and quality, but the creative mind of a brewer knows no bounds!
Barleywines are a great alternative to a glass of red wine, port, or cocktail on those cold winter days when you need something to warm you up. They are meant to be enjoyed slowly, since they are not typically enjoyed on a constant basis. In fact, I consider them a special treat or occasion beer to open. They require your full attention so that you can contemplate and savor each nuance that the brewer intended for your enjoyment.
Listed below are some of my personal favorites for the style:
A hefty, hop-forward Barley Wine- Style Ale. Seemingly mellow at the start with subtle fruit aromas and complex caramel sweetness, it quickly becomes aggressive with its bold hop flavors and huge hop bitterness. Ultimately, the big body, succulent sweetness and massive hop character come together to work wonders on your palate.
10.2% ABV - 60 IBUs
A Barley Wine made in the West Coast style. Big malt and hops make this copper colored ale one of our most popular products. Produced in September and October and released in November, this Beer will improve for years to come.
11.5% ABV - 70 IBUs
Flavors of bourbon, malt, and hops meld quite good. Served at cellar temp like it should. Unified in one voice, our fans can rejoice. Charlie now comes aged in wood!
Our award-winning barleywine boasts a dense, fruity bouquet, an intense flavor palate and a deep reddish-brown color. Its big maltiness is superbly balanced by a wonderfully bittersweet hoppiness.
9.6% ABV - 90 IBUs
Allow us to present you with the Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine, in all its unadulterated glory. Known colloquially as “OG”, this is the OG OG. The über malty, super hoppy mega beer that you know and love (and apparently depend on for your sanity and continued wellbeing) is here. We’re glad to tell you without the slightest modicum of modesty: it’s delicious. And if you’re of the type that’s patient enough to squirrel bottles away, know that this behemoth is poised to continue evolving with age.
11.3% ABV - 95 IBUs
There are always new beers in the style being made and many I have yet to try, so by all means, this is not an exhaustive list. But if you can get access to some of these listed, I highly recommend giving them a try!