Yet, barley wine as a style designation dates at least from 1901, when Bass No. 1 Barley Wine hit the market. Long before then, however, country manor houses in England were turning out very strong ales, possibly to compensate for the interruption of port and Madeira supplies during England’s frequent wars.
What should the aspirations of a good barley wine be? In his 1880 novel, “The Trumpet Major,” English man-of-letters Thomas Hardy described the strong beer brewed in his native Dorchester: “It was the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset; free from streakiness of taste, but, finally, rather heady.”
That flowery paean inspired a brand, Thomas Hardy’s Ale, that two breweries made between 1968 and 2008. This strong ale (it could measure more than 12 percent alcohol by volume) was dosed with fresh yeast in the bottle, and as it continued to ferment, it developed enormous complexity over time. It was eventually deemed too expensive to make, but vintage-dated bottles continue to change hands on eBay.
Some guidebooks refer to Thomas Hardy’s Ale as an “old ale,” and other terms such as “stock ale,” “stingo” and “malt wine” have been slapped on English strong ales as well. Beer taxonomists have drawn up guidelines to distinguish barley wine from similar styles, but they afford brewers a very long leash. Barley wines on the market range in color from honey-gold to deep mahogany. Alcohol can be as little as 8 percent, and as much as 15 percent in the case of Dogfish Head’s Olde School Barleywine, which incorporates dates and figs to add extra sugar for fermentation.
Muddying the waters further is the fact that English and American brewers don’t always agree on what constitutes the ideal barley wine. English versions are malt forward, with sugary and toffeeish flavors dominating. American barley wines tend to be much hoppier. Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine, with its immense resiny and fruity flavors, is a classic; six-packs and kegs of the 2012 vintage should hit the Washington market in mid-February. Hog Heaven Barleywine-Style Ale is dry-hopped with such an abundance of piney Columbus hops that it probably ought to be labeled an imperial IPA, except that the latter style didn’t exist in 1998 when Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colo., first released the brand.
Dominion Millennium Ale, which survived the brewery’s move from Ashburn to Dover, Del., is getting a makeover this year, reports Casey Hollingsworth, vice president for sales and marketing. Specifically, the brewery has replaced East Kent Golding hops, a subtle, earthy English variety, with more aggressive strains Chinook and Apollo. “We’ve truly Americanized it,” says Hollingsworth. The brewery continues to add some Virginia honey to the brew kettle for “a nice, delicate, flowery aroma,” he adds.