What's Brewing? Barleywine is a warming brew for colder months
Barleywine is one of the most complex beers and one of the strongest styles brewers have to offer. Although the name “barleywine” conveys a lot about the taste, it couldn’t be further from wine.
For starters, one can’t squeeze juice from barley as vintners do from grapes. There’s no getting away with the fact that barleywine has intense flavors and is always high in alcohol, generally ranging in ABV from 8- 15 percent and I’ve seen them even higher. This beer is definitely a 5- to 10-ounce pour and one of my favorites during the cold winter months. Barleywine is a great example of a beer that can be cellared for years just like wine because of its high alcohol content.
American vs. English
American barleywines are heavily hopped with the high alpha oil found in the flower to create a much more bitter brew than that found in English varieties. English barleywines are far less hopped and more rounded and balanced in taste. They tend to be a bit lower in alcohol although still, both are higher in comparison to most every other style. This fact is one of the reasons why the word “wine” was added to the name. The second reason being for the rich taste of ripened fruit.
A complex variety of flavors are what really makes barleywines stand out. Barleywines tend to be fruity with deep notes of raisin, plum, dates, and cherries. Much like wine, the fruits are well ripened, complex and will change as the beer warms. The presence of warming alcohol is almost always present both on the nose and finish. These similarities, in addition to the fact that it can be cellared for years, make this brew very much like a fine vino. To get the rich tastes, brewers use an abundant amount of barley, which contain sugars that provide a high alcohol content when fermented. The more malted barley, the sweeter the beer. Barleywines will range in color from amber to a dark brown. They can finish bitter or really sweet with lingering notes of ripened fruit, which I think really make these beers extra special. My favorite time to enjoy these brews is on a cold evening by a warm fire with friends. The notes of raisins and plums with the presence of warming alcohol seem perfect for the winter months. From this flavor profile, one can begin to understand why barleywines can be perceived more like a wine. Like any other beer, hops and yeast play an important role in the overall flavors but it’s the yeast that really allows the malt to taste wine-like.
Here are a few fantastic barleywines you can find locally.
Insanity (11.1% ABV) — This English style pours thick amber brown with a very thin tan head. Aromas of scotch, vanilla, oak and caramel. Full bodied with a gentle warming finish.
East End Brewing Co. (Pittsburgh)
Gratitude, Bourbon barrel aged (11.4% ABV) — An American-style barleywine that pours mahogany color with a thin head. Nose is a bit hoppy with flavors of plum, raisin and ripened fruit. Moderately sweet with spicy notes of bourbon. Finish is sweet with notes of caramel, dark fruit and warming alcohol.
North Country Brewing Co. (Slippery Rock)
Embalmer (9.2% ABV) — An American-style barleywine that pours ruby red with a small creamy white head with flavors of sweet cherries, brown sugar and caramel. Full-bodied, warming alcohol with a bittersweet hop finish.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (Chico, Calif.)
Bigfoot (9.6% ABV) — American-style barleywine brimming with bold flavors of bittersweet malt and hops. The smell of caramel, molasses, burnt sugar and hops. Taste follows the smell including a slight hint of pine. Mellow, medium bodied with a dry finish. Introduced in 1983, this beer has become a cult classic.
Mark Brewer is a Tribune-Review contributing writer. He’s the author and illustrator of Brewology, An Illustrated Dictionary for Beer Lovers.