Where beers fear to tread
Strong flavor and higher alcohol content make barley wine a winter favorite
Go into a tavern, ask if they’ve got any barley wine and the bartender may point to the wine list so you can see for yourself. But, in spite of its name, you’ll never see barley wine nestled amongst the chardonnays and Rieslings.
Made from hops and malt, barley wine is considered by many aficionados to be the king of beers. The heavy amber ale with wine-like fruit flavors has a high alcohol content, which allows it to age and improve for years in the cellar. While barley wine remains a cryptic denizen of the shadows to many avid drinkers—even those behind the bar—it is gaining in popularity, and many brewers and beer fans feel there is nothing else quite like it.
“The allure of barley wines is the incredible punch of flavor,” said Kevin Pratt, owner of The Brewmeister, a Folsom home-brewing supply shop. “It goes unrivaled by any other beer. It’s so impactful, so much bigger, so much more impressive than anything else around.”
Linked by historians to the days of the vikings, barley wine’s record in the New World only spans back to 1975. Early that year, San Francisco brewer Fritz Maytag tasted his first barley wine 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 Company. “I was looking for a beer of pure malt, no sugar, and high hoppiness—the old style of brewing.”
To his surprise and disappointment, he found little that fit the bill. British brewers evidently had abandoned their roots and traditional methods. There was an exception, however: A dark amber ale called Watneys Gold Label.
“I liked it. I asked what it was,” Maytag recalled. “All the guys in the bar laughed and said, ‘Oh, that’s just barley wine! Old ladies drink it after dinner!’ ”
But Maytag knew this was the beer he’d been looking for. He secured the recipe and returned home to make his first batch of Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale.
Soon thereafter, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company released Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale.
“Anchor was always a mentor to us,” said Bart Whipple, brew house 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 two-and-one-half decades since, Bigfoot has taken gold medals at several contests. With the growing popularity of stronger, more flavorful beers, scores of other barley wines have taken the stage as well. In the past five years, barley wine has accelerated toward underground stardom, with several Northern California festivals held annually in the beer’s honor.
“We really have a lot to thank Fritz Maytag for,” Pratt said. “What he’s done as a beer preservationist and historian is just remarkable.”
In producing barley wine, brewers use twice or three times as much malt as in other beer recipes. As a result, the alcohol content by volume runs from 9 percent to 15 percent. Some rare exceptions tower at 18 percent or 20 percent alcohol, and it is this remarkable characteristic of barley wine that preserves the beer and allows it to age and mature.
“Barley wines still aren’t as popular as other beers,” said Tony Magee of Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma. “As a result, they often sit on the shelf in the supermarket all season, just getting better. If you can find one in April or May, it’s a whole different experience.”
Years of aging may work the greatest wonders. Magee has been watching one of his own Olde Gnarley Wines mature on his desk since 1994, and Pratt believes a particularly well-made barley wine can peak at 25 years of age.
“But it’s hard to wait that long with such a good beer, and barley wines that old are very rare,” Pratt said. “A few people have them, and usually it’s an accident, like they left it in the basement and discovered it years later. Tasting a beer like that is unforgettable. It’s like seeing the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world play in a small club.”