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Barleywine Facts And Fictions


Is barleywine about to take the world by storm?  Probably not.

There are more breweries today than there have been in the last 90 years. With them come a whole range of new or revived styles that most people are just finding out about for the first time. Welcome to barleywine, one of the 'new' styles few of us have ever tried. 

The name intrigues. Barleywine? Is it wine made from barley? Is it regular fruit-based wine with barley added? Is it a type of wine named after its creator, such as an alcohol-loving industrious brewer named Timothy Barley, but which contains no barley at all?

We can dispense with the joking. There is no Timothy Barley insofar as barleywine is concerned.  Thereare plenty of Tim Barleys if you care to do a LinkedIn or Facebook search, but they have no bearing on this story.

It helps to understand what we consider wine.  The generally accepted definition we learn early on is that wine is the fermented juice of grapes. Period.  It usually has an alcoholic content of no more than 14% and is noncarbonated. Later, we learn this is a very narrow definition, that other fruits can be fermented similarly and called wine.  Strawberries, mangosteens, bananas, and raspberries can all be classified as a wine.   Elderberry wine? Check.  Blackberry wine?  Check.  Any fruit? Check. 

In fact, there is one definition for wine defining it as "the juice, fermented or unfermented, of various other fruits or plants." That's right. You don't even need fruit.   Conventions over time dictated that grapes and then later other fruits fermented into an alcoholic beverage be known as wine, barley or other grains as beer. Convention is everything and can differ across languages.  In southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, a drink known as apfelwein (apple wine) is commonly distilled. In the UK, apples fermented into alcohol are given a different name, cider.  Barleywine got its name for very simple reasons. The alcohol content of the final beverage, initially, was closer in strength to wine than beer. That's changed significantly since the 2010's. The tripel and the quadruple styles common among craft breweries put barleywine right in the range and style of other strong ales.

Barleywine is not a new drink. One can find the earliest brewing traces of the beverage in an Ancient Greek drink called kykeon. Kykeon was a lot like today's blonde ales in that the style was so general it could encompass many other styles. Some kykeon was made from water, barley, and other natural substances; other versions were distilled from wine and cheese.   Homer'sThe Iliad describes a kykeon made of Pramnian wine, barely, and grated goat's cheese. Noticeably missing from all these Greek recipes was hops.

The brewing of strong ales was always popular in the UK. Hops later became standard in the brewing process sometime in the 1400's which insured the beers' staying power, as beers back then were sometimes casked for years before consumption. Over time, a style evolved known as old ale, found in four different parts of the country: Burton upon Trent, Scotland, London, and Wiltshire. London and Burton, in particular, were famous for both pale ales and ultra strong brews. The ales from Burton were noted as being more heavily hopped.    These knock-you-out beers were the precursors to modern day barleywines.

In the British Medical Journal's January 15, 1870 issue, analyses were conducted of then popular old and mild ales. One of the strong beers profiled was then known as Bass's No 1 Burton Ale. [Brewers referred to their strongest ales as No 1]. A year later, in 1871, an advertisement appeared in a London newspaper promoting "matchless home-brewed barley wine," likely the first modern mention in print of barleywine as a brewing style.  No one is precisely sure when Bass used the term barleywine in its regular marketing and on its labeling, but by 1903, the Bass No. 1 exported to North America was called "Bass and Co's Barley Wine, The Royal Tonic."

The barleywine story is a familiar one experienced by other styles like Berliner Weisse, lambics, and cider.  A once popular drink ceases to be popular anymore. As the 1960 and 1970's dawned on the UK, barley wines faded from favor. How fortuitous that the American craft beer revolution was getting underway in the mid 1960's. Anchor Brewing Company, thought of as America's first craft brewery, started brewing its Old Foghorn barleywine in 1975, considered more English in style than the aggressively hopped American barleywines which came later.

Now, it seems, that the style, while not even close to the popularity of IPA's or pilsners, is one of the must-brew varieties for any larger craft brewery, with the hoppier American barleywine style eclipsing the fruiter English style popular in bygone days. Sierra Nevada introduced its own 'weak' barleywine in 1983 called Bigfoot Ale at only 9.6% ABV. Dogfish Head brews a more typical 15% Olde School Barleywine.  The Scottish brewery Brewdog has teamed up with a Colorado brewery to offer up a 10.5% Shipwrecker Circus.

Back in the 1700's, malt wine and barley wine as alcohol terms popped up occasionally. Wine has always been thought of as stronger, healthier, and more sophisticated, and beer manufacturers wanted to cash in on that.  Modern breweries love the word wine because they can use it to sell beers to discerning collectors and at higher markups.  Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot Ale is marketed as a drink prized by "beer collectors for its supreme cellarability."  The beers are brewed to age like fine wines. New flavors, characters, and experiences come through as the beer ages, and each release is vintage dated just like a wine. 

The Beer Judge Certification Program has a style committee that has codified the differences between Old Ale, English barleywine, and American barleywine.  No brewery actually producing a barleywine cares.   Neither should you.

If you liked reading this, consider:
 Focus On: Beers Of France
 Does Beer Really Deserve The Credit For Turning You Into A Tub?
 The Complete Beer Article Index


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4 Jan 2016
The Harry Dandruff Universe

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