Barley wines

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 the count.

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 highly drinkable.

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 only.
  • 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. Bottle.
  • 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 with age.
  • Anchor Old Foghorn (8.7%): First brewed in 1975 and seen in the UK in nip bottles. Available on draught in the States.
Big Book


Adrian Tierney-Jones