By Gregg Smith
If the old master Rubens were to paint a beer, barley wine would be his
subject. Certainly such a match would be no accident; both portray a full
body, appreciate with age, and critics never regard them lightly. Indeed
the classic canvas of barley wine presents the most sophisticated of beers.
Although the designation barley wine originated early in the 1900's, the
style has undoubtedly been brewed for hundreds of years. In by-gone days
these were referred to as strong ale, stingo, Burton ales, old ales and
Scotch ales. Many of these names survive and frequently appear on labels,
especially in the UK. But the earliest references were as "first sort" or
merely a mark of several X's branded onto the wooden aging barrels. Such
diversity shrouds the origin of this style in mystery.
First appearing centuries ago in small house-breweries, a brewer's
motivation for producing these strong ales was probably a combination of
preservation and bragging rights. They counted on these statuesque beers to
increase their standing with the brewery's patrons, and of equal
importance, cellar over a considerable period of time. High alcohol and
hops both act as natural preservatives and at exaggerated levels they
enhance a beer's shelf life.
Use of the modern name - Barley wine, can be attributed to the high
alcohol, which rivals that of wine, along with the practice of maturing in
wood. Fermentation produces both products, but no other connection with
Achieving a thorough fermentation presents the greatest challenge in making
this style because ale yeasts have limited tolerance for high alcohol.
Thus, the yeast goes dormant and falls to the bottom of the fermentation
vessel without completing its job. Brewers overcame this by using a
combination of two methods. First, by "rousing" the yeast, a gentle stir
back into solution, they coaxed additional fermentation. Coupled with
rousing, they pitched (added) fresh, working yeast to finish the job. In a
more modern practice the brewer might take a shortcut by a late pitching of
alcohol tolerant yeast strains, such as those used in champagne. The
alcohol which results can run from a fairly low 7% to dizzying heights of
nearly 15 percent. Higher levels are typical and breweries bottle them
accordingly. Therefore, be mindful of the small bottles. Sized between 6
and 8 ounces they offer a potent little punch from their diminutive
With so much malt used, brewers aggressively hop barley wines to balance
the inherent sweetness. Routinely, hops measure up to 100 International
Bittering Units (IBU's). How high is this? Consider any of the
distinctively hoppy northwest ales, even the most bitter versions reach
only to a range in the upper 40 IBU's. While such high hops in barley wines
are well justified, it results in traits which vary greatly depending upon
when the product is sampled.
Tasting these beers can evoke descriptive words such as big, bold, huge,
massive, full, and assertive along with phrases such as throat grabbing,
coarsely hopped, and rough alcohol. Often appropriate, they reflect more an
issue of timing than true character. Younger versions do present a somewhat
harsh disposition, but aged (cellared) barley wines bring forth a mellow
personality, and after several years maturity they yield a much different
profile than in youth.
Older versions (2 years and up) will often be described in appropriately
subtle terms. These include malty, sherry-like, estery and complex. At
times they will exhibit a richness of deep fruit-like flavors from cherries
to plums, raisins, and prunes. Finer examples, aged in the customary wooden
cask, will also present wine-like notes of a viney, woody, slightly tannic
A few breweries produce light colored versions of deep golden hues such as
Goldie from Eldridge Pope and Fuller's Golden Pride. However, most Barley
wines range in color from amber to deep reddish browns. Make no mistake,
although often dark they remain clear, bright and handsome.
Served in a tulip shaped glass or snifter, barley wines are unchallenged by
any other beer in the role of relaxing night cap. Consume them like a fine
scotch, cognac or sherry and slowly savor the strong malt and alcohol with
underpinnings of subtle complexity. They make a picture perfect companion
on a deep winter's night.
© Gregg Smith