Seasonal beer releases continue to inspire and delight me, but none so much as the flood of specialty ales that crowd the market between November and February. And hidden among the humongous influx of Christmas beers, a selection of innocent-looking barleywines sit quietly, humbly taking the back seat to the heavily-marketed holiday releases. Waiting patiently on the shelf as wide-eyed consumers race to get the last “2009 Limited Release Special Reserve Double Spiced Estate-Hop Organic Imperial Bourbon Barrel Aged Santa’s Big Red Sac” or something to that effect, the seemingly innocuous barleywine rests, proudly holding out for the right customer to come along and respect its bold, unapologetic strength.
Despite its long history in the brewing world, barleywine is still a lesser-known beer style, surely not aided by the seeming dichotomy built right into its name. Confusion is often abound, with consumers wondering what wine has to do with this particular style of beer. In centuries past, unable to receive regular shipments of French wine during times of war, the English aristocracy looked to brewers to create a wine replacement of sorts, and so the barleywine was born. Though containing no grapes, its elevated alcohol level (often between 9-14% abv), longer fermentation times, affinity for pairing with rich foods, and great potential for aging made barleywine ales a popular drink among the upper crust of Britain.
While commercial English examples such as Thomas Hardy’s Ale and J.W. Lees Harvest Ale were available in England, the style hadn’t come across the pond until Anchor Brewing released Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale in 1975. Sierra Nevada Brewing began producing their Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale in 1983. Many others followed suit, and the recipe evolved a bit, with West coast brewers adding a touch of their own flair, and a liberal dosing of hops as they are so wont to do.
Strong, intense malt flavor with noticeable bitterness. Moderately low to moderately high malty sweetness on the palate, although the finish may be somewhat sweet to quite dry (depending on aging). Hop bitterness may range from moderately strong to aggressive. While strongly malty, the balance should always seem bitter. Moderate to high hop flavor (any variety). Low to moderate fruity esters. Noticeable alcohol presence, but sharp or solventy alcohol flavors are undesirable. Flavors will smooth out and decline over time, but any oxidized character should be muted (and generally be masked by the hop character). May have some bready or caramelly malt flavors, but these should not be high. Roasted or burnt malt flavors are inappropriate. — BJCP Style Guidelines, American Barleywine
Because of the heightened alcohol content and generous hopping, these bold beers stand up exceptionally well over the test of time, which is why many bottles now come with a vintage date just as a wine might. Consumed fresh, they are enormously bold, cloyingly sweet, and have an unfettering bitterness that can be overwhelming to even the most seasoned imbiber. But as the seasons change, so does the barleywine’s profile — hops mellow, the alcohol calms from hot to warming, and it all marries together with the sweet malty backbone. Barleywines can be cellared for years, even decades, and the transformation over time is incredible to experience. After several years, flavors akin to fine spirits begin to form. Some ales often evoke notes of vanilla, tree nuts, and dried fruit, and a sherry-like oxidation sometimes finds its way into the mix as well.
While Anchor Old Foghorn is now available year-round, many barleywines are only available for a short season. Be sure to grab an extra bottle or two if you’d like to compare them side-by-side over the years. (One of my most memorable beer moments was drinking a 1987 Sierra Nevada Bigfoot right alongside its 2007 counterpart.) I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite barleywines here. Alternately, if you are looking for an excuse to travel, The Great Alaska Beer & Barleywine Festival will be taking place in January, and February 13th marks the beginning of San Francisco’s legendary Toronado Barleywine Festival.