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.