Like the terms jumbo shrimp, working holiday and pretty ugly, barley wine appears to be an oxymoron.
The federal government recognizes the potential for confusion, and so requires brewers to slap the cumbersome phrase “barley wine-style ale” on the label of this strongest of ales.
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.
Hugh Sisson, founder and general partner of Clipper City Brewing in Baltimore, has been brewing his Below Decks Barleywine Style Ale for eight years, and is making no concessions to hop heads. “It’s very malt-driven,” he says of the 10 percent alcohol brew. “The West Coast barley wines are interesting, but to me, that’s not what barley wine is all about.”
Barley wines lend themselves well to barrel aging. Sisson produces a limited-edition version of Below Decks that spends a month in bourbon barrels, and a third variety that has spent 1 1 / 2 years mellowing in cabernet barrels. The cabernet-aged barley wine would please even a discriminating palate like Thomas Hardy’s. It picks up a light, acidic fruitiness that contrasts nicely with the caramel sweetness. The hot, raw-alcohol taste that mars young barley wines has completely dissipated, and the extra aging has lent the beer a sherrylike sweetness.
Barley wines tend to pop up in January and February for the tail end of winter. They’re too extravagant for most breweries to produce year-round. “You’re using three times the grist to get twice the alcohol,” Sisson says. “The depth of the mash bed is so high that you’re leaving an enormous amount of extract behind.”
“It’s a lot more work for the brewer. There’s a lot more spent grain to clean out of the mash tun,” says Bill Madden, owner of Mad Fox Brewing in Falls Church, who will be offering his American-style Slobberknocker. Both will be on tap for Mad Fox’s second annual barley wine festival on Saturday. There is no admission fee; just belly up to the bar for four-ounce samples ($3 each) of at least 28 interpretations of the style on tap.
Pizzeria Paradiso plans to hold a similar festival Feb. 19 and 20 at its Dupont Circle location. “I’ve been e-mailing Bill Madden, trying to make sure there is no overlap,” says Greg Jasgur, executive bar manager for the restaurant group. He admits, though, that a few classics, including JW Lees Harvest Ale, will make appearances at both events. Pizzeria Paradiso’s lineup will include some hard-to-find imports such as Bommen & Granaten (“bombs and grenades”) from the De Molen microbrewery in the Netherlands, an almost syrupy sweet example of the style, with notes of citrus and strawberry, that you could almost pour over waffles.
If that doesn’t satisfy your thirst for potent ales, R.F.D. will doubtlessly include some barley wines in its annual strong beer tastings set for Feb. 26 and Feb. 29.
Barley wines pair well with hearty meat dishes such as beef brisket or spicy pork, but they’re also well suited for an after-dinner toast or nightcap. Sisson characterizes them as “fireplace beers, for when you’re sitting in front of a roaring fire with a foot-and-a-half of snow on the ground.”
And if there’s no snow in the forecast? “Create your own special occasion,” he says.
Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.