A fine wine
Barley wine is actually a beer, and its popularity is growing in the States
Go into a tavern, ask if they’ve got any barley wine, and the bartender may very well point to the wine list so you can see for yourself.
But this isn’t wine. Despite of its name, barley wine is made from hops and malt and is considered by many aficionados to be the “king of beers.” It is a deep amber ale, unrivaled by any other brew in its wine-like complexity of fruit flavors and a high alcohol content which allows it to age for years. Many brewers and beer fans feel there is nothing quite like it, yet barley wine remains a cryptic denizen of the shadows to many avid drinkers—even those behind the bar.
Linked by historians to the days of the Vikings, barley wine’s recorded history in the New World only spans back to 1975, when San Francisco brewer Fritz Maytag encountered his first one while beer-tasting in England.
“I made a voyage to England specifically to find beers made in the traditional style,” said Maytag, owner of Anchor Brewing Co. “I was looking for a beer of pure malt, no sugar and high hoppiness—the old style of brewing.”
To his surprise, he found little that fit the bill. Many of the beers he tasted were empty, thin and one-dimensional. British brewers, it seemed, had abandoned their roots and their traditional methods of beer-making. There was an exception, however: a dark amber ale called Watney’s Gold Label.
“I liked it,” recalled Maytag. “I asked what it was. All the guys in the bar laughed and said, ‘Oh that’s just barley wine! Old ladies drink it after dinner!’ “
But Maytag felt this was the beer that he’d been looking for. He secured the recipe and returned home to make his first batch of Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale. Several years later Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. followed suit and released Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale, and it, too, would become an American classic.
“Anchor was always a mentor to us,” said Bart Whipple, brewhouse production supervisor at Sierra Nevada. “Barley wine was something that hardly anyone was doing at the time, and we thought, ‘Hey, we’ll try one, too.’ “
In the 25 years since, Bigfoot has taken gold medals at several contests, and scores of other American microbreweries now produce barley wines of their own. Meanwhile, in England, this king of beers has fallen from the heights of its historical glory.
“It’s a dying style there,” Whipple said. “Lagers and light ales are doing well in England, but barley wine is losing popularity.”
In America, however, strong beers are on the rise, and barley wine is riding the crest of the wave. In the past five years, this grand old ale has accelerated toward underground stardom, and several festivals now honor barley wine every year, including San Francisco’s famous Toronado Barley Wine Festival in February.
While barley wine’s alcohol content by volume can exceed 15 percent, stomping on even the biggest Belgian ales, the beer’s lordly status comes also from its ability to age its complex range of honey, molasses and fruit flavors that other beers simply cannot match.
A narrow range of barley wines is available all year, but this is traditionally a wintertime beer. And as the days shorten and the nights grow colder, the selection in local pubs and markets will expand through December, January and February. Watch for a barley wine influx soon.