The strongest of the British ales, the most malt, the most hops, the most alcohol, the most residual sugar, the heaviest taste, and the longest aging and storage time. (That Greene King Harvest Ale to the right was brewed in 1978 and enjoyed by me in 2005 - "Stayed well in the bottle. Not strong at 7% ABV, but a good mature barley wine. Port, wine, and grappa still come through").
Even though they are thick and strong, there is lots of leeway for paler as well as coal-black beers. They can be soft as a lover's caress or biting as a drill sergeant's bark.
The traditional brewing method of Barley Wines is quite simple; in fact it's actually easier to make than a Pale Ale. Have you heard of sparging? The first time water is run through the grain it picks up most of the fermentable sugars and ends up with an OG (original gravity) of, say, 1080 or so (8% sugars). For most beers more water is percolated through the grain, adding to the original run, until the final run is down to, say, 1007 - giving a full batch of wort of, say 1030. For Barley Wine, just use the first run of water. Simple, huh?
Of course your batch is quite a bit smaller, maybe only half of the amount of Pale Ale you'd get with the same amount of grain. So expect Barley Wines to be quite expensive. The rest of the grain? Make some Small Beer.
The real problem is getting your yeast to stand up to the sugars and shout "more, give me more". You need a very robust yeast to ferment upwards of 10%. Sometimes Champagne yeast was added when the Ale yeast died. Rogue Brewery in the US has developed a strain of very robust yeast they have named Pac-man Yeast for applications just like this.
Now you need to store the beer for aging. Wooden vats introduced lots of tannins and sour, lactic flavors and bacteria could literally slip through the cracks to add more flavors. All part of a good Barley Wine. Now with stainless steel vats and better control of the brewing process there is less difference from year to year but aging still is needed to marry the flavors.
Draw off the beer after only 6 months and you might get a raw, strong, overly raisiny beer that you won't be proud of. Leave it for a year or two to be sure.
Smaller breweries quite often serve a Barley Wine in the dead of winter that was brewed the previous spring. They also usually save back a barrel or two to be served next year. I guarantee you, as a consumer, will like the 21-month old ale much better than the 9-month old ale.
By the way, Barley Wine, like all strong beers, will age in the bottle. If you buy a bottle and store it for a few years (resist the temptation) you will be rewarded. For this reason, most Barley Wines (and many Old Ales) are age-dated by the year of brewing.
American Barley Wines are usually so similar to British Barley Wines as to be indistinguishable. Usually they are styled strictly on the British style and while sometimes the use of US Northwest hops give a slightly more citrusy bitterness, the massive malt base generally masks any difference.
The most legendary Barley Wine is Thomas Hardy's Ale, developed in 1968 by Eldridge Pope brewery in Dorchester, Cornwall. It has been marketed in year-dated bottles since the beginning but there is a gap when the brewery shut down in 1999 (Eldridge Pope decided there was more money to be made in owning pubs than in making beer). In 2003 another brewer (O'Hanlon's of Whimple, Devon) started brewing Thomas Hardy's under license and it is considered just as good as before.
One eloquent review from RateBeer of a 1968 Hardy's tasted in 2006: "Pours reddish brown with a few sparse bubbles around the rim of the snifter despite no hint of carbonation while popping the cap. Smells of cognac, oak, some sherry notes, figs, raisins. Tastes of butterscotch, wood, cognac, some dates, hints of smokiness. This one has an established neck on the glass like a wine. Mouthfeel is peppery with hints of spices and raisins. I can’t believe how complex this one tastes for a 38 year old bottle. No cardboard notes, no wateriness, no fading. As I finish, the alcohol tickles my tongue slightly. This is the true king of aging candidates."
J.W. Lees puts out a series of Harvest Ale in casks and bottles. In addition to the "regular" Barley Wine, there are also versions that have been aged in Lagavulin Scotch Whisky, Calvados, Sherry, and Port casks. Each is distinct and all are wonderful.
Native Territory: England
Color (SRM): Usually deep amber but there are many lighter examples. (10 - 22).
Head: Maybe, maybe not.
Aromas: Malt, Dark fruit. Caramel. Some have strong hop aromas. Some are winey.
Flavors: Malt. Dark dried fruit. Sherry. Molasses. Sweet dark candy. Complex.
Finish: Long, Long. Long.
Mouthfeel: Not overly heavy. Alcoholic.
Carbonation: Usually quite still.
Alcohol: Quite warming to the mouth. 7 - 12% ABV.
Bitterness (IBU): Lots of hops to balance the extreme amount of malt. (50 - 100 IBU).
Serving: Buy several to test occasionally, checking for maturity. Serve at room temperature in a tulip glass that you can get your nose in.
Malts: Mostly Pale malt with a little Crystal or other dark malts.
Hops: East Kent Goldings. Fuggles. Target. Northdown.
Yeast: London Ale Yeast. Ringwood Ale Yeast. Sometimes finished off with Champagne Yeast. Pac-man Yeast.
Related Styles: Old Ale could be considered a lighter variation. Small Beer is made from the second running of Barley Wine mash.
Notes: Long boil times concentrate the wort somewhat through evaporation, giving a stronger and darker beer. This also adds some caramelization.
Bob's Pick: J.W. Lees Harvest Ale - Manchester, England megabrewery - Sherry, caramel, maple, wood. Enough hops to balance. Bottled versions include plain and 4 wood-aged. The Lagavulin Cask adds some peat smokiness. Grayish color. 11.5%
Bell's Beer - Kalamazoo, MI regional brewery - They release at their house tap, the Eccentric Cafe, a cask conditioned Barley Wine every 1000 batches. Each time it's different and well aged. Usually between 9 and 10% ABV.
Broad Ripple Ankle Biter - Indianapolis, IN brewpub - Laid down for 6 or 18 months before tapping. Clear red. Rich caramel, malt, toffee. Lightish body. Drinkable. 10%
Anchor Old Foghorn San Francisco regional brewery - Soft. Deceptively non-alcoholic. All Cascade hops make it a unique barley wine. 7.2 to 10%
Burton Bridge Thomas Sykes Old Ale - Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, England regional brewery - Brownish copper, straw color. Rich. Alcoholic. Dark fruits, berries. Sour from the cask. Target hops. 10%
North Coast Old Stock Ale - Fort Bragg, CA regional brewery - Earthy. Caramel. Brandy, port, cognac, etc. Slight bitter finish. Alcohol certainly comes through strong. 13.2%
O'Hanlon's Thomas Hardy's Ale - Whimple, Devon, England regional brewery - Dark amber. Oak, cherry. Hops are stuck way in the background. Please let sit for at least 10 years. 11.7%
Rogue Old Crustacean - Newport, OR regional brewery - Wheat notes. Prunes. Earthy. Tobacco. Heavy mouthfeel, clinging. 11.5%
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot - Chico, CA regional megabrewery - Well rounded. Cascade hops come through and this might be the hoppiest barleywine extant. 9.6%
InBev Gold Label - Preston, Lancashire, England megabrewery - From the same brewery that makes bottled Bass. Nip bottles (180ml) found in many British pubs under the counter for regulars who are looking for a quick alcohol kick. There's some interesting tastes such as candy, orange, pepper, and a lot of alcohol so it might be worth a taste but it won't win any awards. Mentioned as it is undoubtedly the most popular Barleywine in the world. 9.5%
Typical 5-gallon (US) recipe:
Grains: 20 lb Pale malt, .66 lb Crystal 60L malt, .25 lb Crystal 120L malt
Adjuncts, Fruit, Spices: 2 oz Vanilla bean
1.5 oz Challenger hops at start of boil
.5 oz East Kent Goldings at start of boil
1 oz Fuggles for 15 minutes of boil
.5 oz East Kent Goldings for 15 minutes of boil
1 oz East Kent Goldings at end of boil
Yeast: English Ale yeast
Boil time: 90 minutes
OG / FG: 1100 / 1020
Notes: Dry hop with another 1 oz of East Kent Goldings in secondary fermentation, adding Ringwood Ale yeast. Allow to mature for at least 9 months. Store for up to 10 years.