Know Thy Beer – Barley Wine

Old Ruffian - Great Divide Brewing Co.

As the Great American Beer Festival approaches (28 days!), I’ll be highlighting some of the beer styles you are likely to encounter and what makes them unique.  Today we’ll be covering the barley wine (or barleywine depending on how you want to spell it).  This big beer is easily one of my favorite styles and I hope you give it a try if you haven’t already.

This is what the Brewers Association says about the two variations of Barley Wine-Style Ale in their Competition Style List:

British-Style Barley Wine Ale

British-style barley wines range from tawny copper to dark brown in color and have a full body and high residual malty sweetness.  Complexity of alcohols and fruity-ester characters are often high and counterbalanced by the perception of low to medium bitterness and extraordinary alcohol content.  Hop aroma and flavor may be minimal to medium. English stype hops are often used but not necessary for this style.  Low levels of diacetyl may be acceptable.  Caramel and some characters indicating oxidation, such as vinous (sometimes sherry-like) aromas and/or flavors, may be considered positive.  Chill haze is allowable at cold temperatures.

Examples:

  • Brooklyn Monster Ale – Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn, NY
  • Mirror, Mirror – Deschutes Brewery, Bend, OR
  • Mother of All Storms – Pelican Pub & Brewery, Pacific City, OR
  • Old Foghorn – Anchor Brewing Co, San Francisco, CA
  • Royal Oil – Bull & Bush Pub & Brewery, Denver, CO

American-Style Barley Wine Ale

American style barley wines range from amber to deep copper-garnet in color and have a full body and high residual malty sweetness.  Complexity of alcohols and fruity-ester characters are often high and counterbalanced by assertive bitterness and extraordinary alcohol content.  Hop aroma and flavor are at medium to very high levels.  American type hops are often used but not necessary for this style.  Very low levels of diacetyl may be acceptable.  A caramel and/or toffee aroma and flavor are often part of the character.  Characters indicating oxidation, such as vinous (sometimes sherry-like) aromas and/or flavors, are not generally acceptable in American-style Barley Wine Ale, however if a low level of age-induced oxidation character harmonizes and enhances the overall experience this can be regarded favorably.  Chill haze is allowable at cold temperatures.

Examples:

  • Old Ruffian Barley Wine – Great Divide Brewing Co, Denver,CO
  • Bigfoot Barley Wine-Style Ale – Sierra Nevada Brewing Co, Chico, CA
  • Hog Heaven Barley Wine – Avery Brewing Co, Boulder, CO
  • Old Boardhead Barleywine Ale – Full Sail Brewing Co, Hood River, OR
  • Old Guardian – Stone Brewing Co, Escondido, CA

In case you were confused by the BA’s descriptions or if you just plain didn’t feel like reading it, here’s my version.  Barley Wines are big (average ABV of 8.4-12%), complex, and extremely malty – lending itself to it’s ‘wine’ title.  Some brewers actually ferment their Barley Wines with wine yeast, but it’s the above-average quantity of pale malt and longer boil time that give this style it’s full flavor and rich color.  This complexity also lends itself well to vintaging.  In fact, some will say that a Barley Wine requires several years to reach it’s peak.

The primary difference between the British and American styles lies in the hops.  The “hoppiness” of a beer is measured in IBU’s (International Bittering Units), which quantifies the bitterness of a beer as determined by apha acid, a component of hops.  The higher the IBU’s, the more “hoppy” the beer.  With this in mind, British-Style Barley Wines typically range from 40-60 IBUs while their American-Style counterparts average between 60-100 IBUs.  Some American-Style Barley Wines are over 100 IBUs, like Hog Heaven from Avery Brewing Co. which tops the charts at 104 IBUs and causes some to debate that it’s more IPA than Barley Wine.

Here are last year’s winners (distinction between British-Style and American-Style is new to GABF this year):

  1. Flying Mouflan – Troegs Brewery, Harrisburg, PA
  2. Old #23 Barley Wine – Bristol Brewing Co, Colorado Springs, CO
  3. Jack Hammer – The Brew Kettle Production Works, Strongsville, OH

Have you had a Barley Wine before?  If so, which one is your favorite?  Which are you most excited to try this year?

About Sean Buchan


Sean is a Physical Therapist and Photographer living in (and loving) Denver, Colorado. He enjoys shooting just about anything but his true passion is capturing the craft beer culture here in Denver. If you enjoy his photographs check out Beertographer.

  • Ryan

    2007 Widdershins by Left Hand is delicious.