It’s a Beer … It’s a Wine … It’s Barleywine!

The name Barleywine was given to this style of beer because its alcohol was more in the range of wine than that of a beer.
varleywine shot
Verticals of Barleywine

Barleywine had been around in one incarnation or another for a couple of centuries. The term barleywine was first used in the late 1800s. A couple of centuries later, barleywine production is a blend of modern brewing techniques and old traditions.

This style goes back to the days of parti-gyle brewing where, the first run of this brewing method were, of course, the bigger and more flavorful. Parti-Gyle brewing is the technique of making more than one batch of beer from a single mash. These big, complex ales were highly prized and reserved for special occasions and people, similar to an aged port.
Barleywine essentially a very strong beer, top fermented with lots of malt. Hop character is generally mild and bitterness from the hops is often low compared to the high gravity. The beer is complex, with a sweet malt character, often with hints of dried fruits, treacle, toffee and a pleasant sherry-like flavor after some cellaring.
Yes, cellaring a beer. There’s a modern day concept. Beer does age and like wine the ones with higher sugar and tannin content tend to age more gracefully. One of the first verticals I experienced was a mid 80s barleywine that had been in the cellar for 10 years. It opened a whole new world.
And I’ll bet you’re wondering, like I did back then, how can that be? It’s because there is a ton of malt sugars, tannins from the hops and higher alcohol, all excellent preservatives on their own.
Brewers measure the different components of their brews in IBUs, O.G. and F.G. IBUs are international bittering units. This component comes from the hops and in a barleywine could be anywhere from 30 to 120 IBUs.
There are two ways hops are introduced into a brew. One is to put it in with the boil and the other is to dry hop which is to put it in later when it would impart more aroma than bitter flavor. Hops are used to balance the sweet malt sugars.
How sweet are the malt sugars? That would be a measurement known as Original Gravity or O.G. This tells a brewer how heavy the malt sugars in his mash are. For a barley wine, the O.G. will be anywhere between 1.080 and 1.120 or more.
The rich flavor and deep color of a barleywine comes from the amount of grain that’s jam-packed into the brew and the length of time for the boil which caramelizes the sugars, concentrating the color and the flavor. There are many kinds of malt light, dark, black, blonde, toasted. If a lot of malts are used, and many different types, you will have a fairly complex beer.
A barley wine typically reaches an alcohol strength of 9 to 13% by volume and is brewed from specific gravities as high as 1.130. The Final Gravity (FG) is the specific gravity measured at the completion of fermentation and is usually between 1.018 and 1.030 for a barleywine.
So much is packed into barley wine that it usually takes a few years to mellow out to its best. Many barleywines are vintage dated, much like a vintage wine. Like port, barley wine has huge amounts of alcohol, sugars, and a fair amount of balancing bitterness. It takes time for these components to mellow into the full, complex drink that this style is known for.
Barleywine is also an excellent example of the style difference between the American and British versions. British barleywines are very malty and a light touch of hops for balance. Until the introduction of an amber-colored barley wine under the name Gold Label by the Sheffield brewery Tennant’s in 1951, British barley wines were always dark in color.
American versions are just as big in malt flavor with colors usually ranging from amber to light brown, but there is also a tendency to higher IBUs, giving the beer a very bitter hoppiness, especially when young. This will change with time in the cellar.
Barleywine was first made in the United States in 1976 by Anchor Brewing Company.  Its Old Foghorn Barleywine was one word as opposed to the British two word barley wine. It was a marketing decision; the word wine on a beer label was a way around the regulators. Old Foghorn was bottled in nips, a 4 oz bottle.
Barleywine names are as rich as the beers. Here are some examples with their ABV that is definitely as high as wine:
Anchor Brewing Company Old Foghorn 10
Arcadia Brewing Company Cereal Killer Barleywine 12
Deschutes Brewery Mirror Mirror 11
Dry Dock Brewing Bligh’s Barleywine Ale   10
Firestone Walker Brewing Sucaba     12.5
Flying Dog Brewery Horn Dog Barley Wine Style Ale 10.2
Goose Island Beer Bourbon County Barleywine 12.1
Heavy Seas Beer Below Decks Barley Wine   10
J.W. Lees Vintage Harvest Ale 11.5, Harvest Ale (Lagavulin Whisky Cask) 11.5, Harvest Ale (Port Cask) 11.5, Harvest Ale (Sherry Cask) 11.5
Left Hand Brewing Oak Aged Widdershins  10.7
Midnight Sun Brewing Arctic Devil Barley Wine    13.2
Old Dominion Brewing Dominion Millennium Ale 10.5
Pelican Pub & Brewery Mother of All Storms          14
Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project Our Finest Regards         12.1
Ridgeway Brewing Criminally Bad Elf         10.5
Shipyard Brewing Shipyard Double Old Thumper Ale         11.2
The Bruery Smooth Criminal 15
Weyerbacher Brewing Insanity 11.1 and Blithering Idiot     11.1
These beers are made in small batches and best after a few years of aging. Tuck a few into the cellar for a few years and you’ll have a real treat. Beer unlike wine should be cellared upright as they usually don’t have a cork to keep damp.