Session #12: Barley Wine

Wow, it’s hard to believe this is our twelfth Session or that a full year has gone by since we began this delicious odyssey. Our host this time around, Jon Abernathy, of The Brew Site, has chosen one of my favorite beer styles, and a most appropriate one for the season: Barley Wine. I was fortunate enough last year to judge both a preliminary round and the finals for Barley Wine at the Great American Beer Festival, along with Rich Norgrove, from Bear Republic, and George Reisch, brewmaster at Anheuser-Busch, among others. We had some very lively and engaging discussions about the style guidelines. It was a most enjoyable and satisfying way to spend an afternoon.

The earliest Barley Wines were not well defined, but were simply the strongest beers a brewery made, usually using the first mash runnings. They were originally called by names like first sort, malt wine and malt liquor to indicate both their relative strength and their distinctiveness as compared to grape wine, and later as old ale, stock ale or simply strong ale. Other names have been used, and in some cases continue to used occasionally, such as stingo, wee heavy and even winter ale. It wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century that the name Barley Wine began to take hold. One of the earliest, and perhaps most famous, was Bass No. 1, which was labeled Barley Wine beginning in 1903, according to most accounts.

The first Barley Wine I can recall enjoying was a bottle of 1977 Thomas Hardy, which I drank while still living in New York around 1979 or 80. It was at that time as different as anything I’d ever let pass through my lips. But it wasn’t until relocating from North Carolina to California in the mid-1980s that I had another example.

Naturally, our paternalistic government can’t chance us being too stupid to know the difference between a beer and a wine, though why that would be such a horror I can’t fathom. For that reason, the TTB prohibits not only mixing beer and wine but even a label that might confuse the average citizen, who apparently they believe is an idiot. Thus it is in the U.S. that Barley Wine is almost always referred to as the cumbersome barleywine-style ale. In America, over fifty brewers currently bottle a version of Barley Wine, and undoubtedly many more make only a draft interpretation.

Anchor’s Old Foghorn was the first Barley Wine in America, at least after Prohibition. It was first brewed in 1975, and first appeared in bottles the following year. And while it’s essentially an English-style Barley Wine, the only hops used are our native citrusy Cascades, making it one of the most successful single-hop beers. It’s also well-hopped, for an English-style, at around 65 IBUs. Cascades are also used for dry-hopping. Anchor ages it for at least nine-months (and as long as eighteen), and thereafter put it in 7 oz. bottles — at least until 2005 when they changed it to a 12 oz. size.

The beer is quite lively when poured into a glass, and the effervescence is very evident as the tan head builds before your eyes. The colors I saw were copper with beautiful streaks of a deep ruby red. My three-year old daughter, Alice, looked at me quizzically as I held the glass up to the light. So I invited her to tell me what colors she saw. Alice saw oranges and pink.

The nose was sweet and malty with just a touch of lemon citrus aromas fighting their way to the surface. There was also some earthy and raisin aromas too. The initial sensation is one of dancing bubbles on the tongue, as the effervescence continues into the taste. The flavors of malty sweetness dominate, especially in the foretaste, but then playful hops cut in mid-taste making the overall character surprisingly mild. The finish lingers long as a warming sensation with sweet malt remaining after the hops have left the dance early. It improves as it warms as more and more of the flavors are released from cold storage. Despite years of more extreme examples, Anchor’s delicate flavors and balance make this still one of the finest American-made Barley Wines. It’s just a delight from start to finish.

I just love the complexity and diversity that this style exhibits. No two taste exactly alike, and therein, at least for me, lies their charm. The Toronado Barleywine Festival is just two weeks away, and I can’t wait to taste this year’s crop. I’m also planning a trip to Seattle in mid-March for the Hard Liver Barleywine Festival at Brouwer’s. This should be a fun late winter.


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