May 25, 2018

Beer Break

Beer Break Vol. 1, No. 19
Barley wine - Need we say more?

Jan. 11, 2001

Depending where you live, you may be facing cold days and colder nights this month. Thus it seems appropriate to consider what's probably the most warming beer style -- barley wine.


While the style dates back to Great Britain in the 1700s, its revival on the West Coast in the 1970s and 1980s made a bold statement about American microbrewering. Barley wine is the antithesis of the bland, golden lagers that ruled the U.S. beer landscape in the mid-1970s.

Romance surrounds the style:

- It's not wine, but certainly tastes as big as a robust wine and with an alcohol content of between 6 and 12% may surpass some wines in strength.

- It's often packaged in 6-ounce bottles (nips) because of its strength. Once you've had a barley wine or two you know to expect when you see this colorful (barley wines range from bronze to mahogany) beer waiting in a snifter in front of the fire.

- Barley wines have great names: Old Horizontal (Victory Brewing, Pennsylvania), Blithering Idiot (Weyerbacher Brewing, Pennsylvania), the Monster (Brooklyn Brewing, New York) and Old Crustacean (Rogue Ale, Oregon), simply known as "Crusty" to its fans. Those are just a few.

- Its history dates back to farmhouse brewing in Britain, when brewers used the parti-gyle system, reserving the first (strongest) running for special beer (like barley wine) and the weaker second (or even third) runnings for table beer.

Making a barley wine then and making one now is a challenge brewers relish. Everything is larger when making a barley wine -- the amount of grain, the amount of wort to boil, the length of the boil, the amount of hops, the amount of yeast to pitch, the length of fermentation, the length of conditioning ...

It's particularly difficult is to achieve proper fermentation because beer yeasts are not tolerant of higher alcohol levels. When English breweries fermented beer in kegs brewers would periodically roll -- or "walk" -- the kegs through the brewery.

Anchor Brewing in San Francisco brought the style in the United States, making a barley wine in 1975 when not many were even being produced in Britain. Anchor's Old Foghorn is a substantial beer (8.7 abv and a lengthy conditioning period that includes a solid dose of Cascade hops) but many West Coast brewers were inspired to brew even bigger and hoppier barley wines.

Today we distinguish between British-style and Northwest-style barley wines, with the latter usually stronger (9% alcohol by volume or more, versus 6% and up for British-style). Those beers are not only hoppier but often use citrusy Northwest hops -- as opposed to softer, earthier British hops. Proponents of each style will declare their own the best, but it is most accurate to describe them as different.

Barley wines are so special they even merit their own festivals. The Great Alaskan Beer and Barley Wine Festival is set for Jan. 19-20 in Anchorage. The Toronado in San Francisco hosts a much-anticipated festival, turning over 40-plus taps to barley wines, Feb. 17-24.

Tasting notes

J.W. LEES HARVEST ALE (1999 vintage)
Brewed in England

Michael Jackson's tasting notes:

Deep reddish amber. Dense, almost gelatinous, head. Clean, treacle-toffee, aroma. Smooth, delicious, treacle-toffee, palate. Flavours of vanilla-stick and faintly clovey dryness in the finish. Smooth, soothing and warming. 11.5% abv.

OLD FOGHORN (1996 vintage)
Brewed by Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco, California

Notes from the Real Beer vertical tasting at the 1999 Great American Beer Festival:

Bright dark copper, very aromatic, sweet fruity malt aroma; mellow. Fully complex flavor, warming finish, lingering sweetness, great beer!

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