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.