the TASTE! December 1998
By Adrian Tierney-Jones
What is barley wine? Or Stingo or Wee Heavy as it's been
called in other parts of the UK? For a start it's nothing
to do with wine and all to do with beer. Like its close
relations old ales and winter warmers it is a beer to be
savoured. A dark, ruby red or chestnut coloured, full-bodied,
rich and fruity beer to be sipped with great relish, preferably
in front of a roaring log fire while the winter weather
does its worst outside.
Yet, mention barley wine to most people these days and
if they know what it is they'll think of cloth-capped elderly
men and Ena Sharples lookalikes sitting in their smoky local
nursing 'nips' of this potent brew. Definitely uncool Britannia.
Then there's the strength. The last thing most of us need
some nights is a beer which would heave us over the limit
after one pint, or in the morning make us feel we've done
ten rounds with Mike Tyson.
Barley wine's declining share of the beer market mirrors
this negative image: it was 0.5% back in 1981 but statistics
from the BLVA now suggest it is so small that consumption
cannot even be measured. So barley wine seems to be on the
ropes. Or is it? Well hardly. Whitbread are still producing
38,000 barrels of their classic market leader Gold Label
and the likes of Adnams, Woodforde's, Gales, King &
Barnes, Young's, several micros and, further afield, San
Francisco's Anchor Brewery all devote a small but heartening
section of their ale portfolio to barley wine.
That's not all: chuck into this flavoursome mix beers such
as Fuller's Golden Pride, Gibbs Mew's Bishop's Tipple and
Robinson's stupendous Old Tom. The breweries don't call
these beers barley wines but they still come out punching
from that same alcoholic, complex flavoured corner: it may
be small beer compared to the mega barrelage of bitter but
this great British beer style is far from being out for
With an ABV raising from 7% onwards it is definitely not
something you swig in pints. Well you can, but beware: it
used to be called a sitting down beer because there was
less far to fall. For this reason, most barley wines are
sold in tiny bottles called nips and not all are bottle-conditioned.
Adnams' Tally Ho is unusual in being one of the few draught
barley wines. As for the name, barley wine is generally
reckoned to have emerged at the turn of the century but
no one knows why. Maybe brewers wanted some of the social
cachet of wine rubbing off onto their stronger products.
Or maybe it was an attempt to push some beers upmarket.
Whatever the name's origins, the actual style of barley
wine has been around as long as beer. In the days before
refrigeration, summer-brewed beers could easily turn to
vinegar so strong ales were indispensable as their alcoholic
strength helped preservation. They were also useful for
blending with weaker beers; a practice which is still continued
today by Greene King for their Suffolk Strong. At one stage
nearly all brewers made barley wine, with old favourites
including the long gone Watney's Stingo and Fowler's Wee
Heavy, which is now contract-brewed by Belhaven for Bass,
and at a mere 6.5% is classified as a strong ale.
So why have they survived in today's market where slow-sellers
are discontinued and brewers are doing their utmost to produce
well-flavoured low-gravity ales, such as Coniston's champion
beer Bluebird? The simple answer is that some brewers strive
to keep the tradition alive while others say that they make
barley wine almost for fun.
One such brewer is Mike Powell-Evans of Adnams who produce
Tally Ho every October in time for Christmas: 'Tally Ho
is a tiny percentage of Adnams' output,' says the head brewer
of the Southwold family firm. 'It's a one-shot beer and
a specialist piece of Christmas fun which gets people talking
about beer. We like the idea of some seasonal excitement
and it's eagerly looked forward to by a small amount of
enthusiasts.' That's the joy about barley wine. It is a
highly crafted cult beer into whose making a lot of love
and attention goes. And fun. The workers of one American
brewery go so far as to dress up as Santa and pipe in seasonal
music around the mash tun when they brew their barley wine
- in the summer!
The long maturation in cask is barley wine's only real
connection with wine-making. Today's barley wines are for
the most part brewed earlier in the year and left to grow
and develop their rich, complex tastes. Steve Wellington
at the Bass Museum Brewery brews Bass No 1 (discontinued
by the brewing giants several years ago) in January and
then keeps it in cask for most of the year. This produces
a blockbuster of a barley wine which is madeira smooth and
Steve, who used to brew No 1 back in the 1960s when he
first started work for Bass, is a great champion of barley
wine. He remembers the time when No 1 was kept in wooden
hogsheads in the yard. One year there was a cold snap and
the barley wine froze and broke out of the barrels much
to the delight of the neighbouring office workers. It's
no wonder he enthuses that, 'barley wine is the king of
beers. They're very warming, and ideal for days when the
weather is atrocious. There is still a market for barley
wine. It's fairly small but it will always survive.'
David Crease of Norfolk award-winning brewers Woodforde's,
who produce both the all-year round Headcracker and the
rarer bottled Norfolk Nips, agrees: 'I believe there is
still a market for barley wine. I would hope there is a
future and as long as there is we will continue to brew
them. The beer market is changing in general; the national
brewers are standardising their products - there's a big
range of outlets, niche markets are developing and there
are lots of small brewers. Bottled beer is making a real
growth and barley wines fit into this market.'
Despite its low production barley wine is not about to
vanish and so next time someone asks if you'd like a barley
wine, banish that thought of the cloth cap and hairnet.
Barley wine is one of the great beer styles of this country
and an example of the brewer's art at its finest. The king
of beers indeed.
Make mine Barley Wine
A selection of recommended barley wines and strong ales
- Gales Old Prize Ale (9%): An incredibly complex beer
which improves the longer it's left in its corked bottle.
- Young's Old Nick (7.2%): Full fruity nose, velvety
smooth on the palate, overflowing with flavour and its
forthright hop character keeps sweetness in check. Bottle
- Bass No 1 (10.5%): A lush and very smooth barley wine
with its sweetness balanced nicely by hop bitterness.
Bottle and draught.
- Harveys Elizabethan Ale (8.1%): A golden barley wine
which was originally brewed to mark the Queen's Coronation
in 1953. Bottle only.
- Robinson's Old Tom (8.5%): Used to be described as
a barley wine but has now been rebranded a strong ale.
Still very moreish. Bottle and draught.
- King & Barnes Christmas Ale (8%): Fruity and hoppy
and described by the brewery as liquid Christmas pudding.
- Whitbread Gold Label (10%): Britain's leading brand
and the world's first pale barley wine. Sour nose, reminiscent
of a lambic, while not as big and fruity as some of the
others. Too carbonated for some.
- Fullers Golden Pride (8.5%): Full-bodied with a good
balance of sweet and bitter flavours. The brewery makes
a version for brewery VIPs which gets an extra three months
in an old hogshead.
- Woodforde's Norfolk Nips (8.5%): Brewed once a year,
usually as near to St Valentine's day as possible. Left
to mature until autumn then bottled.
- Woodforde's Headcracker (7%): Pale-coloured, full-bodied
and fruity barley wine which was Champion Draught Barley
Wine of Britain two years running. Draught and bottle.
- Adnams Tally Ho (7%): Brewed early October. Used to
be bottled but only available on draught now. Improves
- Anchor Old Foghorn (8.7%): First brewed in 1975 and
seen in the UK in nip bottles. Available on draught in