If you've never heard of barleywine, you might be surprised to find out that it is actually a style of beer and not wine. Like wine, however, this ale is incredibly complex and intense, with alcohol by volume (ABV) usually ranging from 8-12%. Barleywines generally have a thick body with rich flavors and aromas that can range from dark and fruity to bold and hoppy. Though some folks may be deterred from barleywine because of its high alcohol content and intense, boozy flavor, it is a favorite among craft beer connoisseurs.
The origins of barleywine date back to the days of Ancient Greece before hops were used in the brewing process to give beer a long shelf life. Barleywine first emerged commercially in 1903 as a product called Bass No. 1 made by Bass & Co. Brewery. At that time, barleywine was stylized as two words, barley wine.
It wasn't until 1976 when Anchor Brewing introduced the first American barleywine, which styled "barleywine" as one word in order to differentiate itself from actual wine. The beer was named Old Foghorn and kick started a barleywine craze among craft brewers in the 1980s and 1990s.
Today, modern brewers use techniques to create a wide variety of complex barleywines that range in color, aroma, flavor, and ABV. The common denominator they all share is that they can be aged like fine wine.
In order to achieve the complex flavors and high ABV associated with barleywines, they are made with a lot of hops so that the flavor can be balanced. All of these excess malts and hops create rich and bold flavors, which only intensify as they age.
Barleywines come in two different styles: English and American. English barleywines are more mellow and balanced, while American barleywines are hoppier.
Though barleywine isn't as common as other beer styles, here are a few that we think you might like to try. If these aren't available in your area, check in with your favorite beer emporium or craft brewer for recommendations.
As previously mentioned, in 1975 Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco, CA was the first brewer in the United States to produce a modern American barleywine, so of course we had to feature it. The brewing process for Old Foghorn is based on the methods historically used in England. It is dry-hopped with Cascade hops, fermented with a top-fermenting ale yeast, bubbly like champagne, and cellar-aged.
Goose Island has made a name for itself for their Bourbon County brand beers, which are all aged in bourbon barrels, giving them a boozy flavor and high ABV. Goose Island's Bourbon County Barleywine is a thick bodied, malt forward ale inspired by English-Style Barleywine. In 2018, Goose Island released a special edition coffee barleywine, which packs a bold coffee flavor and aroma.
One of the most popular barleywines on the market, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot made its debut in 1983 and has had a huge following ever since. Bigfoot is robust with bittersweet two-row and caramalized malts and uses a combination of Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook hops. Like fine wine, Bigfoot is able to develop new flavors as it ages in proper conditions.