Craft Beer’s creation of the Imperial IPA has been a wonderful development for the average American beer geek, but it hasn’t been without its charcoal lining. For one, the market has been soaked with an abundance of big, overly hopped IPAs  that really just aren’t that great. I have never tasted any of them, but so I’ve been told. The real problem is that nobody gives a hoot about Barleywine anymore.

Many of us beer crustygenarians remember the first time we heard of and tasted a barleywine. It was kind of magical knowing that beer could be so transformed as to be ”like wine” and those big, fat, Juicyfruit and gin flavors were amazing.  I won’t say I’ve Never Met a Barleywine I Didn’t Like, but I have fallen for a lot of them, and especially those in the English substyle, (BJCP 19B).

Good examples of this style include Young’s Old Nick, JW Lee’s Vintage Harvest Ale, Thomas Hardy’s Ale, and Robinson’s Old Tom. BJCP puts Anchor’s Old Foghorn in the American Barleywine category (19C), probably due to the use of American hops, but to me, its malt forward balance makes it more of an English.

That’s the key distinction, by they way. American barleywine and its British cousin have the same big body and flavor, the same alcohol level (8-12% to be within BJCP guidelines), and the same alcoholic flavor notes. An English version, however, has a greater emphasis on malt and fruit, often due to the behavior of their Brit-bred yeast strains. The Yank versions can be drier, and are often all about the hops—typically American hops. A good example is Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, with its giant hoppy nose and flavor. The hop range for English is 35-70 IBUs, for American it is 50 to 120(!).

While I have admitted a preference for the Brits, I love a good American barleywine too. My brewing partner Kyle once offered me a Victory Old Horizontal on a day when I was suffering badly from a head cold. That’s a fine beer, and a barleywine might have been the only type of beer I could have enjoyed that day.  I’ve almost never sat next to a fireplace without having (or wanting to have) a snifter of golden or ruby-colored liquid bread in my hand. Barleywine is great beer for aging. Stash some bottles away and sample from them over consecutive years to see how they develop. Good beer bars love to do vertical flights of various vintages of beers like JW Lee’s.

My unscientific impression is that you don’t see too many breweries introducing barleywines these days. Not much fermenter space left with all the barrel aged stouts, black IPAs, and sour beers to be made. This style may soon become somewhat of an antiquity, although I’m pretty sure it will never disappear, especially in its Merry Old homeland.

For years, I thought of barleywines as a nice partner for bold blue cheeses. Big IPAs have elbowed in there too, but I would encourage trying both with blues, especially if you are putting together a multi-cheese tasting for a party or something. The hoppy Americans are especially good there. With a restrained, malty British barleywine, try a triple crème. A nice hard Alpine cheese, or well-aged Dutch style should work with the Americans.

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  1. David,

    I can’t for the life of me get into Barely Wine, and trust me I’ve tried again and again.

    I hear it a lot though from those that are into barely wine, that it’s rarely something you get into right away. That it’s an acquired taste and something that you have to work your way into.

    Was curious how you ended up a lover of barely wine and if there is anything in particular that I should be more or less looking for?


  2. David

    Ilya, I came to barley wine the same way I came to most classic styles–from reading those lovely descriptions in Michael Jackson’s books back in the early ’90s. I fell in love with Anchor Old Foghorn, and Old Nick from Young’s brewery. Took longer for me to cozy up to the huge, hoppy Americans. If you want to learn to like barley wine, I think you need the right context–by a fireplace, after dinner, at midnight on a nice summer night, at the end of a mixed flight of beer styles. Think small amounts, in a snifter, too. –Dave

  3. @David

    Again sorry for the delay in getting back to your blog, and thank you so much for getting back to me in such detail. I really really appreciate is! :)

    It seems that this generation of Barely Wine drinkers are coming from a different area all together…probably more of curiosity more than anything. You would be delighted to know that I just picked up my first bottle of Barely Wine…Sisyphus from Real Ale Brewery down here in Texas towards Austin. I’ll have to report back, but can’t wait to give it another go paired with your suggestions. Also just might have to throw in a great cheese too. ;)


  4. Great…

    love your blog, ,Thanks again….

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