Strictly from a naming perspective, few beer styles are as interesting as Barleywine. In some ways, the name immediately conveys everything you need to know about the style; in other ways, the name couldn’t be more inaccurate and misleading. The designation is equal parts on the nose and tongue-in-cheek, lending the style, and the beers within it, to discussion. And Barleywines – as one of the biggest and boldest styles out there – are definitely discussion worthy.
First, the inaccuracies: Barleywines are definitely not wines. Wines are fermented juice, and as anyone who has ever tried to juice barley can attest to, the grain is pretty liquid free. Barleywines are very much beers, made of sugars extracted from grains.
So why call them “wines?” Well that’s the cheeky part: The style earned its name based on these beers’ strength and complexity – two things that definitely show similarities to wine.
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Though there are now a lot of high-alcohol beers, traditionally, Barleywines have been some of the strongest beers on the market with ABVs ranging from as low as about 8 percent and going up to 12 percent or more. Keep in mind that before IPAs and Imperial Stouts took over the American craft beer scene, the vast majority of brews fell somewhere in the 4 to 5 percent ABV range, making the alcohol level on Barleywines much closer to what the average consumer would find in a wine instead of a beer – thus the “wine” name. And speaking of that big ABV, those high alcohol levels also mean that Barleywines are one of the few beers that handle aging extremely well – again, like a fine wine.
To get to such a high ABV, brewers have to pack more malt, typically barley, into the beer to ratchet up its “original gravity,” basically the amount of sugars available to be fermented. All that malt increases sweetness, meaning Barleywines also need an extra helping of hops to keep them balanced. That massive combination of malt, hops and alcohol turn Barleywines into extremely complex beers. Though the type of complexity found in the style certainly differs from the kinds of notes you’d discuss with a wine, the extent to which this complexity can be analyzed and discussed is certainly similar to wine, creating another association between Barleywine and its fruit-made namesake.
So what are those complexities? Well, Barleywine is typically described as coming in two different forms: the hoppier American-style and the mellower and more balanced English-style. The Brewer’s Association describes both versions as featuring “flavors of bread, caramel, honey, molasses and toffee.” As the name Barleywine suggests, these are dark, malty beers, elevated by additional alcohol complexity. Unlike many other styles, hops and yeast play a far more supporting role allowing malt (aka “barley”) and alcohol (aka “wine”) to shine.
Those looking for an introduction to American-style Barleywines can start with one of the founders of America’s craft beer movement—Sierra Nevada. Since 1983 the classic California brewery’s Bigfoot Barleywine has encapsulated a hopped up take on the style. Meanwhile, if you want a “traditional English-style barleywine,” but with one of the best American pedigrees available, see if you can hunt down a Goose Island Bourbon County Stout Barleywine which gets even more kick and complexity from aging in Kentucky bourbon barrels.