Craft beer seems to be following an interesting path lately in that new or re-discovered styles of beer become ‘trendy’. Once one of these ‘new’ beers hits the shelves all of a sudden every microbrewer is making a version to call their own –some recent examples include pumpkin ales, coffee stouts, fruit beers, white or wheat beers etc.
The first time I tried barley wine it was definitely a new experience and still somewhat novel but shortly after the flood gates opened and everyone and their dog was brewing up their version of a barley wine. So I thought I would devote an entire post to this beer fad before it becomes passé.
First let’s talk about the barley portion of the barley wine. Barley [bahr-lee] is a cereal grain when malted forms the primary ingredient in beer. According to Mosher in Tasting Beer, barley may just be the perfect brewing grain. It contains a large reserve of starch that can be converted to sugar, a husk that functions as a filter bed and enzymes that do all the ‘work’ with only the addition of hot water. The enzymes in the barley grain facilitate the malting, brewing and fermentation processes. Barley for brewing comes in two forms, two-row and six-row, so named because of their appearance when viewed from above. From a brewer’s point of view the main difference is the level of protein. Malt beers tend to be brewed using the plumper, lower protein two-row variety while mainstream American beers use the less rotund six-row variety, which has extra enzymes to break down corn or rice starches.
Barley Wine is a style of strong ale originating in England. According to CAMRA this style dates to the 18th century where it was the duty of the upper classes to drink ale rather than Claret during the war with France. Barley wines were often stored for long periods of time -eighteen months to two years. A barley wine typically reaches alcohol strength of 8 to 12% by volume and is brewed from specific gravities as high as 1.120. This style is called barley wine because it can be as strong as wine but it is made from a grain rather than fruit.
Everything about a barley wine is big; big malt flavour, high alcohol content, a ton of hops and it takes time for these elements to blend into a full, complex and mellow drink. In terms of taste, one can expect massive sweet malt, ripe fruit, generous hops, pepper, grass, floral notes, chocolate and/or coffee. In many ways barley wine is the cognac of the beer world; it can be successfully paired but it is truly meant to be savoured alone. Anchor Brewing Company introduced the style to the United States is 1976 with Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale. Many micro-brewers now produce their interpretations of the style.
Some examples include: Driftwood’s Old Cellar Dweller, Rogue’s Old Crustacean, Brooklyn Monster Ale, Dogfish Head’s Olde School Barleywine, Deschutes Mirror, Mirror, Southern Tier’s Backburner, Full Sail’s Old Boardhead and many others.
Driftwood Old Cellar Dwellar: I would give this beer a 4 out of a possible 5
Rogue Old Crustacean: I would give this beer a 3.5 out of a possible 5
Descutes 2009 Reserve Mirror, Mirror: I would give this beer a 4.5 out of a possible 5