The name may be deceiving: Barleywine (or barley wine) is in fact a kind of beer, not wine. Considered by many to be one of the finest and most cellar-worthy styles of beer produced, these brews are not for the faint of heart, nor are they for those looking for a subtle or more nuanced drinking experience. With names like Old Ruffian and Old Guardian, consumers can expect that the beer they have acquired is going to be some seriously intense and flavorful stuff.
As one of the strongest beer styles—alcohol range anywhere from 7–15% abv—there’s no shortage of heft here. Lively, fruity and always quite alcoholic (though balanced by the intense favor profiles), where they vary is in their sometimes sweet but sometimes bitter tendencies. The hops are a key component, especially in American offerings, and can range from a sweet, fruit-dominant presence to a dominating resiny, citrus-oil character. The body is also typically thick and concentrated.
As one of the strongest beer styles—alcohol range anywhere from 7–15% abv—there’s no shortage of heft here.
Given the strength of their components and high alcohol, most barleywines make excellent candidates for cellaring. They develop much like wine—the assertive avors mellow and harmonize—while simultaneously developing subtle nuances of age in the form of nuttiness, rancio or Sherried notes.
Many companies include a vintage date on these selections to assist consumers in keeping track of aging. However, many brewers also feel that the beers are best consumed upon release or relatively young to maintain the dominant hop aromatics. Quite simply, it all comes down to personal preference.
If barleywines just aren’t your thing, we also check out some other seasonally appropriate strong ales. Since these are all likely to be considered sipping beers as opposed to gulpers, they’re perfect for warming the soul on a chilly winter’s night. So buy up your favorites now and get ready to toast to old man winter.
Great Divide Old Ruffan Barleywine (American Barleywine; Great Divide Brewing Co., CO); 10.2% abv, $10/22 oz, 94 points. Great Divide does big beers really well, and its barleywine is no exception. The hops really shine here, with forward notes of dried owers, citrus peel, grapefruit oil and resin, though it remains surprisingly bright and attractive throughout. The palate offers more weight and malty richness, with dried cherry and apricot dancing alongside avors of toasted malt, molasses and fresh caramel. The warming nish has a lingering astringency and bitter texture that leaves you ready for your next sip.
Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine Style Ale 2015 Classic Release (American Barleywine; Stone Brewing Co., CA); 13.4 % abv, $9/22oz, 93 points. This is a classic American barleywine, with upfront notes of resinous hops, citrus oil and pine atop a rich, caramel-malt core. Fruity tones come to the fore on the palate, with enticing flavors of raisins, figs and candied orange peel that mingle harmoniously with sweet tones of burnt sugar and toffee. Smooth and seductive in feel, the fi nish boasts a pleasant bitterness to counter the sweet spice and dried-fruit flavors. Enjoy through 2021.
The Bruery Mash & Vanilla Barleywine-style Ale 2016 Edition (American Barleywine; The Bruery, CA); 13.3% abv, $23/750ml, 93 points. Aged in Bourbon barrels with fresh vanilla beans added, this opens with those notes at the forefront, continuing through to the rich palate and becoming more intense as the beer warms. The roasty, malty palate boasts medium carbonation, which helps to li some of the beer’s inherent richness. The oaky spice and vanilla are certainly the beer’s dominating characteristics, though background accents of dark plum, fig, date and raisin suggest that they are ready to take a more prominent role once those oaky tones subside a bit. Try cellaring this bold brew for a little while, and try after 2019.
Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale (American Barley- wine; Bell’s Brewery, MI); 10.2% abv, $18/12oz 6 pack, 92 points. This rusty brown-colored brew leads with attractive scents of golden raisin, toffee, caramel, toasted grain and brown sugar, all hit with a good dose of hop-based characteristics like citrus peel, resin and earth. The palate is full and flavorful, with medium carbonation to keep the sweet boozy-fruit and roasted-malt flavors in check. The alcohol is surprisingly hidden, with only a subtle warmth lingering through the close.
Other Strong Ales
Deschutes-Hair of the Dog Conflux Series Collage 2 (American Strong Ale; Deschutes Brewery, OR); 14.3% abv, $NA/22oz, 96 points. Another collaboration between two Oregon breweries—Bend’s Deschutes and Port- land’s Hair of the Dog—this is a blend of Deschutes’ The Abyss and The Stoic selections with Hair of the Dog’s Fred and Doggie Claws bottlings. The result is a 100% barrel-aged ale, with forward notes of vanila, caramel and molasses atop fruity tones of raisin, date, fig and dried cherry. Additional layers of toasted oak, toffee, brown bread and bittersweet cocoa powder add depth to the rich and mouthfilling yet smooth and seductive palate. A pleasant dryness grips the finish, with a soft warmth and lingering wood-spice flavors It’s a well-balanced and delicious brew that’s certainly enjoyable now, though should mature and evolve well through 2021.
Firestone Walker Limited Release XX Twentieth Anniversary Ale 2016 Vintage (Amercian Strong Ale; Firstone Walker Brewing Co., CA); 13% abv, $25/22 oz, 94 points. This selection, the 11th release in the brewery’s anniversary ale lineup, is blended together from 250 oak barrels containing five different beers (Parabola, Stickee Monkee, Velvet Merkin, Bravo and Helldorado), with participation from 17 local winemakers in addition to the brewing team during the blending process. The result is a unique, complex and one-of-a-kind limited release, with loads of boozy red berries, fruit cake spice, brown sugar, caramel and milk chocolate aromas and flavors. The mouthfeel is smooth and full, with a lingering warmth and subtle wood-grain tannins. It’s delicious now, but this should age well through 2020.
Bruery Mélange No. 14 2016 Edition (American Strong Ale; The Bruery, CA); 13.4% abv, $25/750 mo, 92 points. A blend of some of the brewery’s vintage barleywine and old ale with imperial stouts, including Share This (a coffee stout) and the famous Black Tuesday Imperial Stout, this is a big and bold brew. Intense aromas of caramel, brown sugar, toffee, brown bread and toasted oak spice up the black plum, raisin and cherry fruit notes and carry through to the robust yet smooth palate. There’s no shortage of flavor or layers of complexity here, and it’s hard to tell where one style influence ends and the next begins.