Barley Wine = Oxymoron

By Amy Tindell

When a barley wine is on tap, the bartender inevitably fields the question, “Is this a beer or a wine?” more than once. A good bartender will be able to explain the differences between the two beverages in interesting and accurate detail. I, on the other hand, was prepared only to reply something along the lines of: “Well, it’s made with grain, and not fruit, so I’m pretty sure it’s a beer.” While accurate, the explanation left a lot to be desired, so I promised to investigate the matter further.

In brief, barley wine is a sweet, malty ale with an alcohol strength between 8-14% by volume and brewed with specific gravities as high as 1.120. Barley wines are not hoppy and feature flavors of dark fruits, sweet malts and sherry, and may acquire woody notes from barrel aging.

“Barley wine” originated in England in the nineteenth century, coined by the Burton brewery of Bass, Ratcliff, and Gretton as a label for its Bass No. 1 Ale. Rumor has it that Bass and others developed the ale for British aristocrats who had developed a taste for strong alcoholic beverages, but were deprived of French wine due to the many conflicts between England and France during the Second Hundred Years’ War. The aristocrats kept barley wine to themselves for years, but it was eventually marketed by Bass to all alcohol lovers. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, Great Britain decided to tax higher-gravity beer at a higher rate, thus reducing the number of breweries that could brew a barley wine and continue to stay in business.

While the ingredients, equipment, and process of brewing a barley wine are essentially the same as brewing a typical ale, a brewer uses different quantities of ingredients and applies different techniques to certain process steps. For example, to get that strong malt character and ABV, a brewer adds 3-4 times the normal amount of malt per gallon to the brew. Also, the boil time for the wort is usually longer, concentrating it to achieve that high gravity.

Further, most brewers recommend using an especially strong, healthy yeast that can survive the high-alcohol environment and pitching 2 to 2.5 times the regular yeast pitching weight for a typical American Pale Ale, which has ~1.050 original gravity. Due to the large quantities of sugar and yeast, the active fermentation step must be tracked carefully, adjusting temperature and even stirring the brew if necessary to rouse the yeast. Once the active fermentation is complete, the barley wine should be left at a fermentation temperature of between 66 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit for 1-3 weeks. During this period, the yeast eliminates undesirable fermentation by-products such as diacetyl, which adds a “slippery” mouthfeel and buttery taste. Then, a brewer will chill the brew to 34-38 degrees, for 90 days to a few years. Sometimes, this “cold storage” step takes place in wooden barrels to impart more complex flavors on the brew.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the concept of beer experienced a revival, and the barley wine style benefitted from this renewed interest. In the U.S., both Anchor Brewing and Sierra Nevada in California began brewing barley wines in the mid-1970s. Today, with the proliferation of craft beer, there are many more choices, and the upcoming winter months create the perfect environment to cozy up with a barley wine. Locally, you might seek out Pretty Things Our Finest Regards, Smuttynose Barleywine Ale, or Berkshire Brewing Company Raspberry Barley Wine Style Ale… Just remember that the high ABV might prevent you from venturing too far after the indulgence, so grab that nice glassware, start the fire, put your feet up, and make a night of it.

The Rising Tide of Portland’s Beer Scene

By Amy Tindell

The Portland that’s beloved by those of us on the East Coast is the land of lobsters and chowder (though not necessarily pronounced as spelled), lighthouses, and in more recent years, breweries. The beer scene has grown sufficiently to support an entire Beer Week, complete with running tours, a beer bus, and a scavenger hunt.

I recruited a Portland resident wise in local businesses and politics, and lured a survivor of my springtime NoVa Brewtopia Weekend across the Mason-Dixon line, to join me in this celebration of New England hops and malt concoctions. Upon arrival in Portland, our first move, naturally, was to fortify ourselves with seafood chowder and a lobster roll at Gilbert’s, followed by a delicious dark chocolate & sea salt treat from The Holy Donut. The taps at Gilbert’s incorporate the nautical theme of the chowder house and feature beers made within a 5 mile radius of the city.


Our bellies prepped, we decided to focus on Rising Tide Brewing Company, open since 2010 and now brewing in the diverse East Bayside neighborhood. The brewery is family-owned and specializes in artisanal ales brewed in small batches, all unfiltered, unpasteurized, and bottle conditioned. Having beaten the brew bus to the bar by mere seconds, we quickly ordered our tasting flights, which included Ishmael, Armada, Daymark, and Ursa Minor.


Rising Tide identifies Ishmael as an “American Copper Ale,” but some may call it a German-style altbier with American hops. The nose and taste are similar, with caramel, grain, and malt notes, starting off slightly sweet on the tongue and finishing a touch on the bitter side. I found it lighter, in mouthfeel and in flavor, than some altbiers I’ve tried recently. The second taste, Armada, is the brewery’s American Brown Ale, with a strong malt flavor balanced by a bitter finish, and also on the light side in mouthfeel.

Halfway through our flights, we decided to re-fortify with snacks – and to create some distance from the newly arrived running tour – by venturing to the foodtruck parked outside. Rising Tide invites foodtrucks every Saturday to complement its beers, this week featuring El Corazon, which offers locally sourced taquitos, tamales, and burritos. We displayed our best manners, dining with one hand holding the food and the other tossing sandbags.


Rising Tide’s Daymark, the third brew of our flight, is its flagship American Pale Ale with a rye twist. It pours in hazy golden tones, with scents of flower and citrus hops. The Columbus and Centennial hops add a citrus bite to the flavor as it hits the tongue, but the flavor transforms with the peppery bitterness of the rye. These more aggressive tastes are balanced by earthy malts that add sweetness to the brew. Rising Tide takes pride in sourcing the rye from local farms and malting it at artisanal Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts.

The final taste came in the form of a Weizen Stout called Ursa Minor. The brew appears smooth and black-brown in color, with aromas of dark fruit and roasted malts. The taste also has dark fruit notes, but features in addition coffee, chocolate, and sweet roast flavors, with only a small wheat bite. This Weizen Stout is thinner than you’d expect, but I did not find that to be a bad thing. Ursa Minor was interesting and much more drinkable than I’d anticipated… I’d like to try it again, in fact, because I was distracted during the tasting by the equipment that made it – a custom-built fifteen-barrel brew system that produces about 120 barrels per month.


Our flights drained, we completed our journey with T-shirts and a few bottles to enjoy later. Happily for Rising Tide, we started a merchandise trend with the bus tour and the running tour – what is beer week about if not spreading the love?