Get To Know Barleywine, the Wine That’s Really a Beer

Array of barleywine bottles on orange background
A barleywine for all seasons / Photo by Tom Arena, styling by Julia Lea

Contrary to its name, barleywine is actually a style of beer. Like so many, its legend begins in the Old World, specifically 18th-century England.

When the craft beer movement in the U.S. kicked off in earnest during the 1970s, brewers put their own spins on the formula. American-style barleywines typically have a bitter, hoppy foundation, as opposed to the richer profiles and fruity esters offered by their British cousins. The style has experienced a resurgence in recent years, particularly among beer lovers who seek out boozier brews.

High-proof origins

To make the most of their ingredients, brewers in Georgian-era England would use the parti-gyle method for their beers. This means they’d use massive amounts of malt and hops to create several styles of beer from a single grain mash. It’s like if you made multiple pots of coffee with the same grounds—the first batch would be strongest, and later batches would become noticeably weaker.

The weaker runs of beer needed to be consumed quickly before they spoiled. The initial brew, which had the highest alcohol levels, would rest in barrels. This allowed the sharper flavors to round out and the beer to develop complexity. These aged brews went by a number of names that included stock ales, old ales and winter warmers.

Sometimes, to make the most of their resources and add character, brewers would blend their older ales with fresh creations. The result was a rich, complex beer with notes of dark fruit, raisins and toffee—qualities similar to Port wine.

It wasn’t until the legendary Bass Brewery began to sell its No. 1 Barley Wine in 1854 that the style became known as barleywine. Though no grapes were involved, the name was a nod to how the wort created from the barley would develop and age like wine.

Revolution's Straight Jacket and Fox Farm's Copestone barleywines / Photo by Tom Arena, styling by Julia Lea
Revolution’s Straight Jacket and Fox Farm’s Copestone barleywine offerings / Photo by Tom Arena, styling by Julia Lea

Barleywine’s fresh face

Today, a number of American breweries embrace the style. Chicago’s Revolution Brewing takes its barleywine quite seriously. As part of its Deep Wood Series of barrel-aged beers, the Straight Jacket bottling is a blend of barleywines aged from one to four years in different barrels, and with varying alcohol levels.

“The perfect barrel is young enough to impart increasing oak levels as we age longer and longer,” says Marty Scott, the brewer who oversees Revolution’s barrel program. “Old enough that the whiskey [previously housed in the barrel] is mature and of a quality beyond reproach, and fresh enough that the staves are sanitary and liquid-tight. It’s driven more by practicality than romance.”

This approach helped Straight Jacket literally strike gold and bronze, respectively, at the Festival of Barrel Aged Beer in 2014 and at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival.

A Fresh Guide to Hops in Beer

For its 3,000th beer, Seattle’s Fremont Brewing crafted the fittingly named Brew 3000. Aged in Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels, this barleywine was made with noble hops and floor-malted barley, which utilizes a malting process that predates the Industrial Revolution.

California’s The Bruery recently updated their Bourbon barrel-aged barleywine, Mash, with a decadent twist. Freshly chopped vanilla beans are added to create the Mash & Vanilla variation. The tweak intensifies the barrel notes of oak and coconut.

For its British-style Copestone offering, Fox Farm Brewery of Salem, Connecticut, added a touch of real wine into its barleywine by aging a portion of the ale in Port barrels.

“It’s our feeling that the Port-barrel character is the most distinctive, maybe defining, quality in Copestone,” says Zack Adams, founder and brewer of Fox Farm. “The decision to use Port as one of the barrel components was made early on, as we were thinking of treatments that would lend depth and complexity in a unique, but complementary way. The rich, dried dark fruit vibes are there in most barleywines. but the time in Port barrels brings it to the forefront.”

For its 2019 vintage, Copestone spent 10 months in Port barrels, followed by another 10 months in Bourbon barrels.

“We felt the Bourbon barrel treatment, with its more traditional vanilla [and] tobacco qualities, would settle into the background a little better than another distinctive, specialty barrel,” says Adams. “It allows the Port to pop.”

The Bruery's Mash Vanilla, Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot and Union Craft Brewing's Chessie barleywines / Photo by Tom Arena, styling by Julia Lea
The Bruery’s Mash Vanilla, Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot and Union Craft Brewing’s Chessie barleywines / Photo by Tom Arena, styling by Julia Lea

Sierra Nevada has brewed Bigfoot, its American-style barleywine with Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops, since 1983. Truly, it’s a beast of a beer that’s not for the faint of heart.

“I’ve always loved Bigfoot,” says Kevin Blodger, cofounder and head brewer of Union Craft Brewing in Baltimore. “It’s probably my favorite beer. When I was formulating my recipe [for barleywine], I wanted the beer to be a tribute.”

Blodger’s effort was an American barleywine named Chessie, a hoppy yet aggressively malt-forward ale. It’s reminiscent of a classic double India pale ale, and it features complex pine notes from the inclusion of Columbus and Centennial hops.

Made with nearly 2,000 pounds of malted barley, Union releases a fresh version of Chessie annually, as well as one that sits in American whiskey barrels for at least 10 months.

“I think a well-made barleywine is a thing of beauty,” he says. “The malt, the hops and the booze from the barrel play so well together to make this thick liquid that warms you up as slowly sip it.”

Published on March 12, 2020
Topics: Beer