King of ales

Barleywines abound as season winds down

Photo By Erin Kohlenberg, via flickr

If a light and zesty lager, cold as ice, is the classic refreshment of a summer day, the ideal brew of a cold winter evening should be something at the opposite end of the beer spectrum. Sure enough, January, February and March are traditionally the months when breweries release what might be the king of craft beers—the barleywine.

This rich and delicious style, born long ago in Britain, is usually honey- to amber-colored, often quite sweet, and approaches wine levels of alcohol (hence the name). Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot barleywine contains more than 9 percent alcohol by volume, and some barleywines—especially modern American ones—go as high as 15 percent or more.

Traditional British barleywines are softer on the hops and heavier on the candy and caramel notes. Anchor’s Old Foghorn—one of the first barleywines brewed in the United States, in 1975—was modeled after British beers encountered by the San Francisco brewery’s owners as they toured England’s pub country, seeking brewing inspiration. Old Foghorn, on the low end of the scale at 9 percent alcohol by volume, has retained its gentlemanly composure even through the American extreme brewing craze of the past decade.

Elsewhere, American barleywines have become a recognized style, bigger, stronger, and bitterer than the original English renditions. Dogfish Head in Delaware, for example, makes a ferocious beast called Olde School, which is brewed with dates and figs and weighs in at 15 percent ABV. Many others measure 12 percent and 13 percent, and increasingly popular among brewers is to age barleywines prior to bottling in wooden barrels that once contained whiskey, rum or wine. Bigfoot—which has touched such boozy wood on a few experimental occasions—is one of most extreme of American-style barleywines. The beer is famously bitter, so aggressively hopped that it could just as well be categorized as a double IPA.

But whereas IPAs are best consumed fresh from the tanks, barleywines originated as beers for the cellar, to last through the cold months. They served as a source of calories for people for whom solid food may not have been a guaranteed asset in the winter. Brewers quickly discovered that barleywines, better than nearly any other beer style, can endure the passage of months—and years—with grace. That is, rather than grow skunky or sour like a forgotten lager in the basement, barleywines mature and grow. Their easy-drinking sweetness of youth turns thick and chewy, with elderly specimens exhibiting wonderful flavors of caramel, vanilla, dried figs, and fudge. The presence of the word “old” in the names of so many current barleywines reflects the tradition of keeping these beers in the cellar.

With bitterly hopped barleywines like Bigfoot, the changes brought about by time are especially dramatic: the hops fade quickly as the malt character develops. Tastings of aged Bigfoot are popular among many beer aficionados, who may sample several vintages side by side to study like scientists the dramatically different stages of maturity.

Barleywines can be expensive—$6 to $10 or more for a 22-ounce bottle—and they are always precious. Like acclaimed wines, barleywines may be treated with great reverence, and cherished by the sip through an evening—especially when it’s cold out. Popular barleywine marketing imagery portrays cabin-bound old-timers sipping mahogany brown beer from tulip-shaped snifters by a roaring log fire, as snowdrifts pile high outside. (No: a barleywine is not for drinking on the lawnmower.) Barleywines are opened on special occasions, perhaps with special people. But whosoever you may be hosting the night you open that long-awaited barleywine, the beer—at least for a few moments—becomes the guest of honor.

What barleywines to try? Still very much in season, there are many to be found currently on retail shelves, including Lagunitas’s Olde GnarlyWine, FiftyFifty’s Old Conundrum, Rogue’s Old Crustacean and 21st Amendment’s Lower De Boom. Coming later in March is a collaborative barleywine made by Deschutes, Rogue, and North Coast brewing companies (as part of Deschutes’ Class of ’88 series). Meanwhile, Anchor’s Old Foghorn and Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot are still around as well—but as spring and summer warm up the days ahead, stash unused bottles of barleywine in a cool place until next winter. They’ll be waiting.