Pairs well with winter

Cold nights are for barleywine

Photo by Jazz Guy (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 or so.

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 become a popular style for Sierra Nevada to experiment with as part of the brewery’s expanded barrel-aging program—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.

What barleywines to try? There are many fine choices on the shelves of better beer stores including Stone Old Guardian, Lagunitas’ Olde GnarlyWine, 21st Amendment’s Lower DeBoom and Firestone Walker’s Helldorado. Meanwhile, Anchor’s Old Foghorn and Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot (including big bottles of whiskey-barrel-aged Bigfoot with ginger added) are still around as well—but once the cold, rainy days begin to give way to more sunshine, stash unused bottles of barleywine in a cool place until next winter. They’ll be waiting.