A second mug of barleywine always seems like a good idea at the time, but the next morning tells a different story. The strong, dark ale is a historical style that remains popular with a small section of brewers and drinkers, but has largely fallen by the wayside in the mainstream beer drinking community.
This is a shame because there is real depth and beauty in this malt-forward style that’s built to age and evolve over time. The colors range from deep copper, to tawny brown and garnet. There are even some nearly black pours.
While fun to look at, the real marvel is the oxidized flavor, which at times resembles wet cardboard and is acceptable in this style, especially in aged versions. Candied flavors like rich caramel, butterscotch and fudgy chocolate appear in some versions, while tones of aged leather and wet pipe tobacco arise in others. Sherry-like aromas and warming alcohol sensations are also hallmarks of the style.
English barleywines are typically more malt focused, while American versions can have heartier doses of hops that add earthy or fruity flavors to the brew.
Some brewers choose to release barleywines in the colder months of the year as annual offerings. One of the largest and best known is Bigfoot from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. In recent years, the California-based brewery has been offering vertical packs of the beer, letting drinkers taste three previous years against the current batch. Thomas Hardy, a United Kingdom-based brewer also releases an annual barleywine ale, a tradition that stretches back more than 50 years.
Because of its high alcohol content and ability to age gracefully, a lot of brewers will design barleywines to condition in spirit or wine barrels, adding exciting flavors to the mix. To add to the specialness, quite a few brewers choose to dip the bottles in wax, adding to the presentation.
Lakefront 2019 Black Friday Barleywine; $20/22oz, 97 points. The strength of this barleywine is that it stands tall on its own and the barrels only play a small role in the overall flavor. The wood is important, mind you, and offers up the vanilla and spice components that one expects from Bourbon barrels, but the base beer offers tones of caramel, butterscotch and light minerality. An annual release from the brewery available on the day after Thanksgiving, this will age well over the next five years or can be consumed immediately.
Cigar City Leon; $35, 96 points. This barleywine has a vinous background, thanks in part to the brandy barrels this was aged in. A special release from the brewery, it is dark brown in color, with no discernable head and a big, boozy kick on the finish that swirls with notes of smooth leather, pipe tobacco and decadent caramel. It goes down easier than the posted alcohol might suggest and a full bottle empties quickly.
Springdale 2019 Grain Reaper; $12/500ml, 95 points. The color of rich caramel, this barleywine starts off with a big, fluffy off-white head that dissipates quickly. It shows some age from both the mature base beer as well as the wood it spent time in. Vanilla, oak and a wonderful spiciness mix with red berry, leather and a whiff of wet tobacco.
Port Brewing Don’t Drink Barleywine; $8/19.2oz, 94 points. A collaboration with the group Don’t Drink Beer, which promotes the “Barleywine is Life” mantra, this is a straightforward example of the style without the bells and whistles of barrel aging or adjuncts. It should age nicely, but enjoyed young it has an earthy hop bitterness accented by raisin, dried tobacco and pine tar.
Thomas Hardy 50th Anniversary Golden Edition; $11/11.5oz, 93 points. Packaged in 2018 but still available on store shelves, this golden anniversary offering of a revered barleywine is heavy on the Sherry notes, with hints of aged leather, butterscotch and red berries. It’s a warming ale that’s low carbonation and streamlined in mouthfeel. As it sits it releases a whiff of tobacco. Beloved for a reason, it is never too early to start a collection of this annual release and enjoy it over the years.
Weathered Souls Barrel Aged #BIL; $26/500ml, 93 points. The color of golden honey and topped with a frothy off-white head, this barleywine relies heavily on the Bourbon barrels it was aged in. Big on soft vanilla, toffee and a sharp oak kick, the base beer is somewhat thin, making it easy drinking. It shows some pleasing oxidation alongside flavors of caramel and bready malt.
Sun King Johan Barleywine; $20/ 16oz 2 pack, 92 points. Bursting with aromas of butterscotch and caramel, this dark mahogany colored ale is sprightly in both its carbonation and flavor. Where some barleywines might be stodgy, this has life and lift to it, starting with a slightly fudgy note all the way to a mild vanilla finish.
Burlington Beer Co. Mahogany & Tweed; $32/ 16oz 4 pack, 88 points. Thanks to a viscous mouthfeel, there is no mistaking the maple in here. Reminiscent of pancake breakfast syrup from a diner, this is a sticky, rustic ale, with a faint metallic note on the finish. It was aged in Cognac barrels.