Barley wines. Some regard it as the “peak” of craft beer (personally I prefer imperial stouts) with its merging of flavours and the strong drink of choice for any beer geek.
But it wasn’t always this way. For the British readers and fans of British beer, barley wine is a style associated with Whitbread’s Gold Label. Those gold cans sat on supermarket and off-license shelves, next to cans of Tennent’s special brew and was the favoured choice of drink for those looking for a quick boozy hit while Old Tom was associated with smoky pubs and those looking for a strong beer to get them through the working afternoon. This stuff wasn’t premium nor top-quality beer – it was strong and potent and designed to give people a buzz – sounds like Strong Zero?
¹But go and ask some of the growing craft beer fans in Japan, the USA, or UK and most of them will have tried a barley wine. Since the mid 90s, the style has seen an increase in popularity, with winter seasonals being full of barley wines. Moreover, imports of barley wines, predominantly from the US, have helped propel the style into the minds and palates of craft beer drinkers in Japan.
But what is barley wine? Barley wines, sometimes written as barleywine, is a misnomer. Though there is wine in the name, there is no wine in the beer. Unlike wine, barley wines are made from the same ingredients as beer uses – malt, water, yeast, and occasionally hops. With it being a traditional style of British beer, there is some subtle dig in the name at Britain’s favourite neighbours – the French.
One of the oldest styles of beer, the current form of barley wine originated in England during the 15th and 16th centuries. Later on, England was often at war with France and it was the duty of patriots, usually from the upper classes, to drink ale rather than red wine, thus taking away funding from the French government, instead funneling it towards the war effort.¹ While at the time barley wine was often brewed in country houses, Bass was the first Bass No. 1 Ale at 10.5%.
Drinkers wanted something that was similar to wine in strength – often between 10% and 12%. Barley wines were also stored for periods of as long at 18 months or two years before consumption, often in oak casks that were once used for wine. When country houses had their own small breweries, it was often the task of the butler to brew ale that was drunk from cut-glass goblets at the dining table.²
Like most versions of British beers, there are now two distinct styles to barley wine – American and English. And like most version of beers that have had an American influence, the US versions of barley wine are hoppier and more bitter, i.e. more aggressive and in your face, while the English versions are malt forward and fruitier.³ The first beer that is considered to be the benchmark for American barleywines is Anchor Brewing Co.’s Old Foghorn in 1976.4 However, there were problems at first:
“Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing helped spark interest in the Barley Wine style the US with the release of Old Foghorn Barleywine Ale in 1975. According to sources, he had some trouble with the name at first, because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms would not approve the use of the word ‘wine’ in a beverage not containing grapes. So Maytag re-named his brew Barleywine and sold it only in California, where the label did not require Federal approval.”5
Like their bold cousin, the imperial stout, barley wines have also lent themselves to being aged in a variety of ways.The high alcohol content in barley wines preserves them better over time than other styles, and the complex malt profiles change into a multitude of flavors as the hops fade off as the barley wine ages. Oxidation may occur in a low amount to produce flavours such as sherry, cognac, or even whiskey. American barleywines will become more like their English counterparts, so you have a tough decision to make – drink them “fresh” to ensure the hoppiness is still there, or age them to reduce the hop flavours and try it with the malts coming through.
Moreover, barley wines have also seen them become part of the barrel-aging programs. Bourbon and whisky barrels are the vessels of choice, with as the dark fruit flavors, such as raisin, plum, date go well with the meld with the vanilla and oak from the bourbon barrels. Breweries have also been seen blending work well with the beers too, and it’s becoming more common to see barleywines made from a series of batches over time.
Of course, this wouldn’t be much of sources of style if we didn’t include some barley wines to try. However, most of them are seasonal specials, so you’ll need to hunt them down during winter to get them. Buy three or four bottles, with one to try now, and the rest to age and test over time to see how the beers change.
Japanese Barley Wines Worth Trying
1) Baird Ganko Oyaji
- The Bottom Line: I liked Baird’s take on a barley wine with Baird Ganko Oyaji Barley Wine; something different from the overblown sweetness that comes with the style. Buy two: drink one and age one.
- The Full Review: https://beertengoku.com/2016/12/27/baird-ganko-oyaji-barley-wine-by-baird-beer/
2) Nasu Kogen Nine Tailed Fox
- The Bottom Line: It was a really nice ale, though, and I’ll definitely be buying more of it in the future to squirrel away. If you’re going to do the same, take my word for it and let it age for at least a year.
- The Full Review: https://beertengoku.com/2018/05/21/nasu-kogen-nine-tailed-fox-2017-by-nasu-kohgen-beer/
3) Daisen G Beer Barley Wine
- The Bottom Line: If you’re looking for a good introduction to barleywines, then Daisen G Beer Barley Wine is perhaps a good place to star
- The Full Review: https://beertengoku.com/2016/02/12/daisen-g-beer-barley-wine/
Japanese Barrel Aged Barley Wines Worth Trying
1) Shonan Tengu Barley Wine
- The Bottom Line: Maybe too dry or woody for some, but I found this extremely agreeable. Perhaps let it age to calm down the bitter woody flavours and emphasise the dry fruit.
- The Full Review: https://beertengoku.com/2017/12/25/shonan-beer-tengu-barrel-aged-barley-wine-2017-by-kumazawa-brewing/
2) Swan Lake Barrel Aged Barley Wine
- The Bottom Line: It was quite smooth for a barley wine – not refreshing smooth – but definitely easily drinkable for a barley wine.
- The Full Review: https://beertengoku.com/2017/12/09/swan-lake-barrel-aged-barley-wine-by-hyouko-yashiki-no-mori/
3) Oh! La! Ho Cuve La Pomme
- The Bottom Line: It’s not as bitter as a fresh barley wine, and not as heady despite being 15%.
- The Full Review: https://beertengoku.com/2016/06/07/cuve-la-pomme-2012-by-oh-la-ho-beer/
Let’s be honest – if you’re going to try a style of beer, then it’s also worth trying out some of the overseas beers. Here’s some foreign barley wines we also recommend. Check out the label on the bottle to see when the beer was bottled, and also ask how the beer was imported. Was it in a cold chain from start to finish? Was the beer stored in a chilled environment in store? If the shop assistant can’t, or doesn’t know the answer, then give it a miss.
- AleSmith Old Numbskull (USA)
- Anchor SteamOld Foghorn (USA)
- Firestone Walker Sucaba (USA)
- Robinson’s Old Tom (UK)
- Wild Beer III (UK)
1 – https://www.morningadvertiser.co.uk/Article/2017/08/22/What-is-barley-wine
2 – http://www.camra.org.uk/barley-wine
3 – https://www.bjcp.org/2008styles/style19.php#1c
4 – https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2018/01/62-of-the-best-barleywines-blind-tasted-and-ranked.htm
5 – http://mendobrew.com/blog/889_barley-wine-sometimes-older-is-better/