Illustration by Derek Mast
Martyn Cornell, author of Amber, Gold & Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers, explains: “Many, if not most, landowners in Britain brewed their own ale and beer, and when wars with France meant supplies of brandy were cut off, or when the tax on brandy became too high, they would brew extra-strong well-aged ales as a substitute.”
So the name was meant to reflect that these beers took the place of wine? Not quite, according to Cornell: “Barleywine as the name for a type of beer is probably not much more than 120 or so years old. Previously, these heavy, strong ales would simply have been known as Old Ale or Stock Ale, or been given a designation such as ‘Number One’ or ‘XXXXX.’”
And somewhere along the line, these robustly malty ale powerhouses somehow came to carry this vinous misnomer? “[It] was just a marketing name invented to show how strong these beers were, and not because they had been made to imitate wine, or brandy, or sherry,” asserts Cornell.
Beyond the elevated alcohol level, barleywines are big, beastly beers that tend to find their way onto the table and into the glass in the colder months of the year. Historically speaking, these were very malt-centric beverages with little to no detectable hop presence, crafted by English brewers to evoke complex traces of treacle and toffee. When allowed to age, the character mellowed and matured, bringing in notes of sherry and countless other intangibles.
Around 1900, when Bass & Co. Brewery began exporting its No. 1 Burton Ale to the United States, it added the word “barleywine” to the label, which is what ultimately cemented the popularity of the term, both here and in the UK. Of course, with Prohibition and the subsequent growth of American macro-breweries— which worked much harder at aggressive marketing, distribution and consolidation than they ever did at producing flavorful products—not much could be found in the United States by way of barleywines for many years. But in 1975, Anchor Brewing Company changed that by releasing their own, dubbed Old Foghorn. “There wasn’t a lot to try back then,” laments Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. founder Ken Grossman. “I’d had some barleywines on visits to England, and I’d gotten my hands on some Thomas Hardy’s Ale, but Old Foghorn was a welcome newcomer.”
Sierra Nevada’s own barleywine—Bigfoot— was quite a gamechanger when it was first brewed in 1982. Hopped much more heavily than its English inspirations, it became the progenitor of the style now known as American Barleywine. Hops, of course, add their own piney/citrusy flavors to beer, in addition to bitterness, all while acting as a natural preservative.
While this helps the barleywine age for long periods—and it can age well for decades—the characteristic hop flavor and aroma diminish over time. “Fresh and aged are completely different animals,” explains Grossman.
“As it matures, the vinous character develops as the hops fade.”
In fact, Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Brewmaster Matt Brynildson deliberately cellars his barleywine— §ucaba—before bottling it. “For me, barleywines were made for barrel aging,” he proclaims. “We look at them as a perfect medium for barrel expression, so we build the beers to age and work well with wood.” And so they do, slowly transforming in bourbon barrels for a minimum of one year. Besides the rich backbone of toast and vanilla character seeping in over time, the base beer mellows and matures, and the flavors become perfectly integrated.
Thirsty yet? I know I am. Luckily, ‘tis the season for barleywines, and you’ll be able to find many of them on shelves and tap lists between December and February. Wondering how to enjoy them? Victor Novak, brewmaster at TAPS Fish House & Brewery in Brea, offers his advice: “Barleywines are big beers, so they need something equally big to pair with; Stilton blue cheese is awesome…but for me, they’re best by themselves, served in a snifter at cellar temp, preferably on a cold, crisp night on the patio, preferably with friends and a fireplace nearby.”
- Herb-roasted nuts
- Roasted or grilled game meat (think duck breasts with cherries)
- Wild mushroom risotto
- Various cheeses (blue, goat, aged Cheddar, aged Gouda)
- Dark chocolate with hazelnuts
- Salted caramel cheesecake
- AleSmith Old Numbskull
- Anchor Old Foghorn
- Firestone Walker §ucaba
- Ladyface Blue-Belly Barleywine
- Lagunitas Old GnarlyWine
- Sierra Nevada Bigfoot
- Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine
- TAPS Barleywine
- Telegraph Rhinoceros