A descendant of ancient English strong ales, barleywine (or barley wine) is a full-bodied, high strength ale usually between 8% and 12% ABV. Barleywine owes most of its heritage to its old ale predecessors, which by the nineteenth century was hardly a distinct beer style, but was variously known as old, stock, strong, or stale ale. These old ales were generally barrel-aged for a year or so, imparting them with vinous qualities and rich aromatics. Old ales were mostly malt-heavy and dark, with some residual sweetness and an elevated ABV.
In 1903, Bass & Co. Brewery coined the term “barley wine” to describe a beer made from barley, that approached the alcohol levels of wine. This Manchester-based brewery used barley wine as a marketing tool to promote their No. 1 Burton Ale. Rather than using barley wine to delineate a specific style, breweries began applying the term to describe their strongest (No. 1) old ales, which often topped 10% ABV.
In 1975, Anchor Brewing Company made the first American barleywine, Old Foghorn, with the traditional “parti-gyle” system used by English breweries. This system describes a method of brewing where two or even three separate beers were made from successive running from a single mash. The first runnings were used for strong ales or barleywines and the subsequent runnings used for weaker or “small” beers.
British and American Barleywines
In modern brewing, the defining differences between old ale and barleywine are still quite vague. Typically, old ales tend to be sweeter and maltier with an elevated ABV that is lower than barleywine. According to BJCP guidelines, English barleywines should have multi-layered malt flavors ranging from bready and biscuity to dark caramel and molasses. Malty sweetness is moderate to high, with a medium to relatively high fruitiness, and enough bitterness to balance or to provide a firm presence.
American barleywines are described as a well-hopped version of English barleywine, where the hop character should be evident throughout. The malt can be bready or caramelly, but should not be as intensely malty or rich as its English predecessor. Fruit esters should be low to moderate and hop bitterness should be moderately strong to aggressive.
Although they are no longer prevalent in Britain, Thomas Hardy’s Ale is an excellent modern example of the traditional English barleywine. In the US, barleywine has become increasingly popular, with Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot as the referential American example. Canadian craft brewers are producing some great barleywine too, often as a special release or seasonal brew. Be sure to add a few to your cellar collection, because you shouldn’t miss out on this very unique, delightful and warming brew.