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HOME | IN THE MAGAZINE | BACK ISSUES | NOV/DEC 2009

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A Winter's Ale

The bold flavors of barleywine take center stage during the holidays.

 

Story by Adem Tepedelen

Photos by Michael Cogliantry

 

Brooklyn Brewing calls theirs Monster. Sierra Nevada’s legendary beast is named Bigfoot. Great Divide has Old Ruffian-all monikers invented to perhaps warn consumers that the bottle they hold in their hands is no ordinary beer.

 

Even their collective name, barleywine, sends mixed messages. But make no mistake: Barleywines are beers. Very strong beers (usually in the 9-to-12 percent ABV range) that challenge the brewer and reward the drinker. These big, complex, flavorful beers are perfectly suited for dark days and chilly nights. In fact, they are traditionally seasonal releases, the showpieces of a brewery’s winter selection. These are not beers that brewers typically want to make year-round, nor do most people want to drink them year-round. But for beer enthusiasts, barleywines are one of the year’s most anticipated releases—wonderfully rich beverages that warm the soul on a cold, dreary night.

 

Though it’s a style that was largely unknown in North America until 1975, when Anchor Brewing introduced Old Foghorn, barleywine’s origins go back to 18th- and 19th-century England when that country was frequently at war with France and lacked regular access to the Claret so beloved by the upper crust. “[Barleywines] were originally produced [for] the British aristocracy as a wine replacement,” explains Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at New York’s Brooklyn Brewery. “[They] asked brewers to create a beer that could go on the table and do the same things as wine.” However, these early barleywines were brewed solely for the aristocracy. The general public would have to wait.

 

The first commercially available English barleywine—Bass’s No. 1 Barleywine, made by the Bass & Co. Brewery of Burton-on-Trent, England—didn’t appear until the beginning of the 20th century. Today, the style is relatively uncommon, though certainly not unknown, in the United Kingdom. On this side of the Atlantic, however, barleywines have been slowly growing in popularity for the last two decades, roughly mirroring the growth of the craft beer industry. But this is not a beer that people who are looking for an alternative to pale American lagers are discovering in their first foray into craft brews. Instead, you might find your way to barleywine after you’ve navigated past double IPAs and tried a few other high-gravity winter warmers. The double-digit alcohol content—not to mention the name—can be a little daunting for the uninitiated.


Indeed, few of the early American pioneers of the style considered making barleywine a particularly smart marketing move. Most were like Sierra Nevada founder/president Ken Grossman—intrigued by the style and curious to try making it himself, whether or not any customers wanted to drink it. “We had been over in England in the late ’70s and were familiar with some of the barleywines over there,” says Grossman, who brewed his first batch of Bigfoot in 1983. “There weren’t a ton of them available at that point, but there were a few that we drank. We thought it was a unique style and we wanted to play around with that.”

 

The style was so foreign in the U.S.—only Anchor had previously released its Foghorn—that the federal government determined that the name “barleywine” might be confusing to consumers (was it a beer? was it a wine?), despite the fact that nothing about it, from the bottle to the packaging, suggested it was wine. Grossman’s compromise was to call it “barleywine-style ale,” and the term is still used on all U.S.-brewed barleywines to this day. “I’m OK with that,” Grossman says of the somewhat awkward-sounding labeling. “I think it gets across the message that you want to say about the style of beer. I don’t think it confuses too many people.”

 

The naming issue may seem somewhat absurd in 2009, when there are now dozens of barleywines being made in North America and the style is now much more well-known. But in 1993, when David Keene, current owner of Toronado Bar in San Francisco, held his first Barleywine Festival, there were precious few examples of this beer style to fête. “I was bartending at Toronado [at the time],” he says, “and we had carried Old Foghorn and Bigfoot, and then Marin Brewing Company came out with Old Dipsea. And I said, ‘Wow, here’s three or four barleywines that I’d like to taste.’ And that was the first barleywine festival. It stemmed from me wanting to taste these beers. I was always looking for something more challenging. An extreme beer at that time was a barleywine in the American scene.”

 

Today, people trek from across North America and as far away as England to Toronado’s Barleywine Festival, now held every February during San Francisco Beer Week. And these days, visitors to the festival can sample more than 50 different versions of the style, almost all of them domestic.

Building a Bigger Beer
In  today’s craft beer world, where brewers continually push the boundaries of beermaking, barleywines no longer seem as extreme as they once did. Brewers stick to the same four basic ingredients—malt, hops, water and yeast—used to make more standard beer styles, and there are no herbs, spices or exotic ingredients involved. Nevertheless, these beers test a brewer’s mettle and tax the limits of his or her equipment.

 

The goal with a barleywine is to make a very strong beer that can potentially be cellared. In order to do that, brewers need to use more malt—sometimes three or four times as much as a lower-gravity beer such as a pale ale—to increase the fermentable sugars in the wort, so that the yeast have plenty to convert into alcohol. But that in itself can be tricky. “It’s a little hard to get the yeast coaxed to ferment that high of an alcohol content and that much sugar,” says Sierra Nevada’s Grossman. “So we typically do it in our open fermenters, and it’s a much longer fermentation and aging process than we have with just about any other beer—typically in the six-week to two-month range.” (In contrast, most ales take only three to four weeks to ferment.)

 

“Everything about the way that fermentation works is going to be different in some ways than regular fermentation,” says Brooklyn Brewery’s Oliver. “What you’re fermenting is almost like a light syrup, as opposed to something that seems like a liquid. So it’s easily going past 25 percent sugar. You’re really looking at something that is very big. If you don’t pitch the correct yeast and the right amount of yeast and you don’t give it everything it needs, at some point [the yeast] may stop early, or give you some strange flavors.”

 

As a result of all that malt, barleywines usually wind up dominated by sweeter flavors like caramel, toffee, molasses and a wide range of fruit. Traditionally, English brewers have balanced that sweetness with a hearty dose of bittering hops, to keep their barleywines from being cloying and to help preserve them for aging. American brewers have put their own spin on the style and, not surprisingly, it involves a lot of aromatic hops, a trend that began as early as Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot. “Being pretty hop-centric brewers, our interpretation [of the style] for Bigfoot packed a pretty significant hop wallop,” admits Grossman.

 

Because Bigfoot was one of the first examples in America, this is the same route many other brewers subsequently followed, and hoppiness has become a hallmark of American barleywines, particularly on the West Coast, where craft brewers already rely heavily on a lot of hops. “American-style [barleywine] is more brash and has massive hop character,” notes Oliver. “It’s ready to drink, as far as the brewery’s concerned, when it’s released. [People] might like it better in six months or a year, but because it does have that big hop aromatic, it’s really presenting itself as something to be drunk now.”

 

These American hop bombs definitely can be aged but are usually best appreciated—to get the full “hop wallop”—while they’re fairly young, because the strong hop aroma is the first thing to fade. “My personal preference for our Bigfoot would be to drink it in the three- to six-month range after packaging,” says Grossman. “I like to drink them fairly fresh.”

Time Will Tell

If the idea of aging—rather than drinking it when it’s fresh—seems odd in regard to a beer, remember that this particular style is called a barleywine for a reason. Yes, part of it is simply the fact that the alcohol content rivals that of most wines, but barleywines were originally created as a wine replacement and, as such, they still have much in common with grape wine, not the least of which—and unlike most other beers—is the ability to improve with age. Even Grossman, who prefers his Bigfoot young and sprightly, acknowledges the need to make sure it can stand the test of time. “We definitely know that a lot of people like to age this [style of] beer,” says Grossman. “So we do our best to brew it in a manner that has longevity.”

 

That’s easier said than done. The trouble is that the same things that can give a beer longevity may also make it challenging to drink while young. The big hop backbone, necessary to maintain structure (much like tannins in red wine), is sometimes a little daunting. “Personally, what I’m looking for in a barleywine is [for] some of that diminishment of the hops,” says Toronado’s Keene. “Most years of Bigfoot, it’s almost too hoppy [for me] when it first comes out, and then I like it six months, a year, two years later.”  This is why most barleywines, like most wines, come with a vintage date on them. They’re certainly drinkable now, but they will often improve with age, sometimes even becoming, ironically, more wine-like.

 

“[Barleywine] goes through a significant shift as it ages, from more hop-forward with malt in the background to sweeter and winier,” says Grossman. “After six months [in the bottle], the hops start moving a little bit to the background and the malt starts changing to more of a sherry note and age characteristic. As [they] get a year or two old, they really do start developing wine-like characteristics. They become a lot different aromatically, and the malt-hop balance changes dramatically.” A barleywine that may have had a joltingly bitter finish and overwhelmingly hoppy nose in its youth can mellow quite nicely.

Take the Chill Off
Another significant way in which barleywine resembles wine is how it’s enjoyed—namely, in smaller pours and at a warmer temperature than your average lager. A beer with 10 percent ABV isn’t particularly “refreshing,” in any case—delicious, hearty and satisfying, yes—so there’s no need to serve it particularly cold. This is a sipping beer, best enjoyed after a meal as a digestif, or with a dessert or cheese course (see pairing sidebar). It’s something you open to relax and warm your insides with, maybe sharing a bottle with friends. “I always think of barleywine as an after-dinner drink, like Scotch,” says Toronado’s Keene.


Though barleywines are typically released in winter, for Keene the connection to the beer is more about the weather, and less about the time of year. “We sell more barleywine if [the weather is] dreary and rainy than if it’s sunny,” he says. “It’s not really a fun-in-the-sun, go-to-the-beach kind of beer.”

 

RELATED CONTENT

For barleywine tasting notes and pairing ideas, check out the November/December 2009 issue.