Typology #1: American Barleywine

This is the first in what I hope will become an on-going monthly exploration of different kinds of beer, known as Typology Tuesday. This month’s type of beer is American Barley Wine.
Barleywines are one of the first styles that I became enamored of when I first moved to California in 1985. Before that, I don’t remember being able to find many of them, even in New York City, where I lived in the late 1970s. I vaguely recall a bottle of Thomas Hardy, but wish I could remember how it tasted. In mid-80s Bay Area — specifically the South Bay — I discovered Liquor Barn, then still owned by Safeway. It had the best selection of beers I’d seen up to that point, even more than Brewski’s in the East Village. One of the beers that caught my eye early on was a little nipper, a mere 6.4 oz, of Anchor Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale. This I remember.


In fact, I still have a couple of the small bottles in my cellar, a more recent gift from a friend at Anchor. I’m not sure how old they are, but they bring back fond memories. After Anchor, Bigfoot was the other barleywine I started to see each year. It predated my emigrating to the left coast by two years, having debuted in 1983. Old Foghorn uses Cascade hops, while Bigfoot uses Chinook for bittering, but is finished with Cascade, Centennial, and more Chinook. Anchor was going for a more English style, but the Cascade hops upended that somewhat. Bigfoot has no such illusions, and goes straight for the throat with big hop character.

And there were many more, and growing, even in those heady early days in the latter half of the 1980s. In 1993, Dave Keene launched the Toronado Barleywine Festival, though it was a rather small affair. There were just three beers — barley wines from Anchor, Marin Brewing and Sierra Nevada — on a small table in the back of the pub. It quickly grew to national prominence, eventually including 60 or more different barley wines, with BJCP-certified judging. For a number of years, winning the Toronado Barleywine Festival was as prestigious as a gold medal at GABF. Keene knew he was on to something when San Diego brewers, whose beer was not even sold in the market, were begging to be included in the festival. Unfortunately, the logistics of double-blind judging of over 60 beers overwhelmed the available space and resources, and with the chaos that has become SF Beer Week, Dave stopped the judging portion of the festival in 2010, and this year suspended the festival altogether.

But it was the first niche festival I ever attended, I immediately loved the idea of featuring just one style of beer and being able to taste so many different example at one time. When I first started going to the Great American Beer Festival in 1992, one of my favorite things to do was to choose a style and then walk the hall and try every single example being poured. You could actually do that probably through the early 2000s, but increasingly only with less common styles. Nowadays it’s almost impossible unless you decided to focus on something particularly obscure.

But the barleywine festival was something special. I found the idea of a festival with only one kind of beer invigorating. It was always a thrill, and Dave was a gracious host and put on a hell of a party.

Dave Keene in the back room of the Toronado during the barleywine festival in 2008.

You could actually try all of the beers before they ran out, but you couldn’t do it alone. It took a group of dedicated people to stake out a table, and took hours of effort, perseverance and patience. I did actually accomplish that goal several times. Here, for example, are all of the barleywines we sampled at the festival in 2007.

Judging the final round in 2007, sitting next to Jamil Zainasheff, who now owns Heretic Brewing.

Once I started judging at the festival, it became even more amazing, and was something I looked very forward to doing each year. In the early days, it was pretty easy to tell the difference between an English-style barleywine and an American one. Malt equaled English, Hops equaled American. Not always, but enough of the time to make it a pretty reliable rule of thumb. But then came the Double IPA, which shares quite a few similarities with American-style barleywine, and threw that into turmoil. Whenever a hoppy example of a barleywine was discussed, inevitably someone would suggest it was, or might be, an Imperial IPA rather than a barleywine. This often led to some heated discussions, some useful, some not so much. But it became less settled what the distinctions were, beyond the slight ingredient differences, primarily the malt build. They’re certainly more well understood today, but when it comes to tasting them, it’s still often fairly difficult to easily identify one from the other. It’s certainly still an issue when judging the style. It even came up earlier this month sampling 37 barleywines for the next issue of the Celebrator Beer News. But it’s hard to avoid that the style has had to evolve and the two — American barleywine and Imperial IPA — will continue to further divide so that the two styles will become (hopefully) more easily discernible through simple sensory analysis, a.k.a. drinking them.

The barleywines at the Toronado Barleywine Festival in 2013.

Alaska Barleywine Festival 2015 Winners

Here are the winners from this weekend’s Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival in Anchorage, Alaska.

  1. St. Elias Brewing’s Moose Juice, Soldotna, Alaska
  2. Midnight Sun Brewing’s Termination Dust Belgian-Style Barley Wine, Anchorage, Alaska
  3. Lagunitas Brewing’s Olde Gnarlywine Barley Wine, Petaluma, California

And the Best Winter Beer:

Congratulations to all the winners. Thanks again to Tom Dalldorf from the Celebrator Beer News, for sending me the winners.


Toronado Barleywine Festival 2013

Yesterday was the 20th annual Toronado Barleywine Festival, the original SF Beer Week event, that predates our beer week by fifteen years. I arrived a little late, sad to say, because Porter had his little league tryouts in the morning, but for at least the fourth year in a row, my luck held. When I arrived, it was already in full swing.


Luckily, I found Sean Paxton holding down Matt Bonney‘s table near the front of the pub.


The table already had a full compliment of all forty barley wines. Since Sean was looking to go roaming himself, I graciously agreed to take over table babysitting duties, which allowed me the opportunity to try every one of this year’s barley wines.


There were some very good, even great, ones, of course, and a number of decent beers, and a few that weren’t as good as one might have hoped.


But over all, I think my favorite barley wine of the day was Mad River’s John Barleycorn, which in many ways has become the epitome of an American-style barley wine for me, and seems to get better every year. Other stand-outs included Heretic’s Dead Weight, Moylan’s Old Blarney, Drake’s Jolly Roger and Anderson Valley’s Horn of the Beer. I also enjoyed Bear Republic’s Old Scoutter’s 2010, Berryessa’s Cliff’s Fiscal and Widmer’s Old Embalmer.


The back room, which is normally only used for special events (and Washoe’s) was configured in a new way this year, which seemed to allow more people to taste, with one side having long picnic tables and the other a place to stand and try the beers with a long table running the length to hold multiple barley wines. This also made the middle wider and easier to traverse than in previous years.


All in all, another great beer festival, with some spectacular barley wines. But if you didn’t get a chance to go on Saturday, don’t dispair, the barley wines will be there at least until Monday, and some will probably be hanging around a little longer, until they run out.


Alaska Barleywine Festival 2013 Winners

Here are the winners from this weekend’s Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival in Anchorage, Alaska.

  1. Anchorage Brewing Barley Wine, Anchorage, Alaska
  2. Firestone Walker Sucaba, Paso Robles, California
  3. Black Raven Old Bird Brain Barley Wine, Redmond, Washington

And the Best Winter Beer:

Congratulations to all the winners. Thanks again to Tom Dalldorf from the Celebrator Beer News, for sending me the winners.


Alaska Barleywine Festival 2012 Winners

Here are the winners from this weekend’s Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival in Anchorage, Alaska.

  1. Black Raven Brewing, Redmond, Washington
  2. Firestone Walker Brewing, Paso Robles, California
  3. Silver Gulch Brewing & Bottling, Fairbanks, Alaska

And the Best Winter Beer:

  • Kodiak Island Brewing, Kodiak, Alaska

Congratulations to all the winners. Thanks to Tom Dalldorf from the Celebrator Beer News, for sending me the winners.

Hard Liver 2010

On Saturday, the 8th annual Hard Liver Barleywine Fest began at Brouwer’s Cafe in Seattle, Washington. People started queuing in line at 9:00 a.m. for the eleven o’clock opening and the line ran up Phinney almost to 36th Street. There were 50 different barley wines and 12 more different vintages for a total of 62 available beers to sample.

Brouwer's on Hard Liver day
Brouwer’s Cafe on Hard Liver Day.

Tables filled with sheets of barleywine while the line for beer behind snaked from the bar
Like the Toronado Barleywine Festival, people camp out at tables to sample and discuss the barley wines, with many managing to work their way through all of the beers.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, this has become one of my favorite niche festivals. Brouwer’s is doing a great job with this barley wine festival and it continues to grow each year with more beers and greater attendance. What many people don’t realize is that it’s not just Saturday, but will continue through the entire next week, until all the barley wines run out. So don’t think you missed it, there’s still time to check out most of the barley wines, which are listed below.

Below is a slideshow of the 2010 Hard Liver Barleywine Fest. This Flickr gallery is best viewed in full screen. To view it that way, after clicking on the arrow in the center to start the slideshow, click on the button on the bottom right with the four arrows pointing outward on it, to see the photos in glorious full screen. Once in full screen slideshow mode, click on “Show Info” to identify each photo.

Meanwhile, upstairs we deliberated on the final eight
The Final Eight Barley Wines

Barley Wines Available

2009 vintage unless otherwise noted
Bold = Winners / Italics = Reached Final Round

  • Alaskan Big Nugget 2008, 09
  • Anacortes Old Sebastes [3rd Place Winner]
  • Anchor Old Foghorn
  • Anderson Valley Horn of the Beer
  • Avery Hog Heaven 2006, 09
  • Beer Valley Highway to Ale
  • Big Sky Old Blue Hair 2008, 10 [2nd Place Winner, 2008]
  • Black Raven Old Birdbrain
  • Boulder Beer Killer Penguin
  • Boundary Old Boundary
  • Deschutes Mirror Mirror
  • Dicks 2005
  • Dogfish Head Olde School 2008
  • Elliot Bay Pro-Am
  • Elysian Cyclops 2008, 09, 10
  • Firestone Walker Abacus [Honorable Mention]
  • Flying Dog Horn Dog 2008, 09
  • Full Sail Old Boardhead 2008
  • Glacier Brewhouse Old Woody [1st Place Winner]
  • Great Divide Old Ruffian Barley 2008, 09
  • Green Flash
  • Hair of the Dog Doggie Claws
  • Hales Rudyards Rare 2007
  • Hood Canal Breidablik
  • HUB Noggin Floggin
  • Lagunitas Olde Gnarleywine 2008
  • Left Hand Widdershins 2008
  • Lost Abbey Angel’s Share Bourbon
  • Lost Abbey Angel’s Share Brandy 2008
  • Lost Coast Fogcutter
  • Mad River John Barleycorn
  • Moylans Old Blarney
  • Ninkasi Critical Hit
  • North Coast Old Stock Ale 2007, 09
  • Pike Old Bawdy 2006, 07, 08, 09
  • Port Townsend Barleywine 2007
  • Port Townsend Barleywine Wood Firkin
  • Ram Mallwalker
  • Redhook Treblehook
  • Rogue Old Crustacean XS 2008, 09
  • Scuttlebutt Old #1 Barleywine
  • Sierra Nevada Bigfoot 1996, 2009
  • Speakeasy Old Godfather
  • Stone Old Guardian 2010
  • Three Skulls Barleywine
  • Victory Old Horizontal