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Who Needs a Vine?

February 22, 2011

February is a good month for barleywines, with many big-name craft breweries releasing some excellent barleywine-style ales to cap off the winter months.

As a style, barleywine originated in England at the turn of the century, when brewers produced strong, malty ales that could age like wine. Called barleywines because they have a strength similar to wine (usually around 8-12% abv), they are made with lots of grain rather than fruit, and therefore are, in fact, beers. Though a very loose style (there is very little difference between barleywines and old ales, for example), American barleywines tend to add a distinctive hop character to the mix for nuanced, sophisticated beers on par with fine wines.

The renowned Stone brewery recently released their 2011 version of Old Guardian, a barleywine-style ale at 12% abv. It’s brewed with lots of barley and a complex assortment of hops and malt in the background, but is so well-blended and smooth it’s hard to distinguish between them. Flavors of toffee, caramel, banana bread, and herbal hops all mingle together, and the alcohol is hardly noticeable. For all of it’s strength, complexity, and overall awesomeness, it is surprisingly inexpensive and will only get better with age.

Southern Tier has a barleywine-style ale called Back Burner that is definitely worth checking out as well. At 9.6% abv, it has a dark copper color and a sweet malt taste that makes it easily one of the most drinkable barleywines around. With flavors of dark fruits like plum and cherries, as well as vanilla and a little honey, it’s smooth and mild with a very well integrated alcohol content. The sweetness is kept in check by a touch of hops at the end, for a beer that is as approachable as it is strong.

Probably my favorite barleywine at the moment is Great Divide’s Old Ruffian, a very hop-forward approach to an American barleywine. At 10.2% abv, it has a slightly creamy, caramel malt backbone interlaced perfectly with floral hops that add touches of grapefruit and pine. It’s mellow at first, with subtle flavors of fruit and some brown sugar, and just enough hop complexity in the background to keep it interesting.

Barleywines are among the strongest and most diverse of all beer styles, and American craft brewers are doing some great things with them. Equally suited for the dinner table or the cellar for aging, barleywines play a big part in keeping craft beer classy.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2011 11:53 am

    Nice post Deron! A good quick and easy explanation of what separates barleywine from traditional wine. I would suggest a few other good, local barleywine options including Smuttynose (Portsmouth, N.H) Barleywine Ale, Redhook (Portsmouth and Woodenville, WA) Treblehook (may not be production currently, but other barleywine options are sometimes on-tap at the brewery) and Shipyard Brewing Company (Portland, ME) Barleywine. Also a fan of Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot… though not a local option.


    • February 22, 2011 1:01 pm

      Thanks, I’ll have to check those out. I read somewhere that the Smuttynose Barleywine Ale is closer to a double IPA than a traditional barleywine, but then again what’s the use of splitting hairs when it comes to good beer?
      Good call on the Sierra Nevada Bigfoot by the way, I’m also a fan.

      • February 22, 2011 6:28 pm

        I double-checked on the Smuttynose via their site, and it doesn’t describe as closer to a DIPA, but totally agree, why split hairs when discussing great beers. Again, great post. Cheers!

  2. Paul Raimondi permalink
    February 23, 2011 8:34 am

    All good representation of the style. One of the posts also mentioned Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, which I like very much, but not just for the taste. When you are drinking a barleywine, unless you have a friend or two with you, you can’t finish a 22 oz bomber of it. Bigfoot comes in a six pack, making it welcoming for one to finish a 12 oz bottle without wasting the rest.

    • February 23, 2011 12:38 pm

      Yea true, barleywines can be pretty heavy. For the 22 oz. bombers though, it is possible to seal them with a bottle stopper and keep them in the fridge after opening. There’s not a whole lot of carbonation in them, so they hold up fairly well. I know they sell bottle stoppers designed specially for beer bottles too.

  3. Erik T. permalink
    March 16, 2011 5:05 pm

    Huge fan of barleywines, and in addition to the ones you’ve mentioned (love Southern Tier), I’d also recommend Pretty Things’ “Our Finest Regards,” which is great…

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