So what exactly is a barleywine?
After posting last week about the Central City Thors Hammer Gift Pack, and through some conversations with friends a familiar question keeps coming up: what exactly is a barleywine? Since I’m a relative newbie to the barleywine style I thought I’d look into it a bit further and share what I’ve learned for those who aren’t sure.
First off, in spite of the name a barleywine is indeed a beer. It’s just typically a lot stronger than most typical ales. Often you’ll find barleywines clocking in at over 10% alcohol so they’re definitely closer to wine from that perspective. But to quell any lingering concerns: barleywine = beer.
Winter time is the typical season for these beers to appear. Since barleywines are often hovering around 10% alcohol they are definitely a winter warmer to be sipped and shared. Aged versions often have characteristics that make them akin to a port or a sherry in both the intensity of flavour and the alcohol level. Most of the BC barleywines you’ll find won’t drink quite like that and should be more like a strong, intensely malty beer.
Which beer a brewery chooses to label as a barleywine can also vary – it could be a true-to-style barleywine, a brewer’s deliberate misinterpretation of the style, or even just a strong ale labelled as a barleywine. Just as some breweries choose to label or name their beers differently from the style they actually brewed, they may decide to label a strong ale a barleywine as well. Breweries change the names of their beers for different reasons but it is usually to make it easier for a consumer rather than pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. They want you to buy their beer after all. All of this is to say that if the beer is labelled a barleywine you will still find something to enjoy regardless of whether it meets the strict definition of a the style.
What does barleywine taste like and will you like it?
As will all beers, what a person likes is entirely subjective and up to them. With that said, it behooves anyone that is curious to grab a bottle to share with some friends and decide for themselves.
Basically what you expect from your barleywine will differ depending on whether you’re drinking one brewed in the American or English style. Even then, the characteristics will change depending on if the beer was barrel conditioned or bottle conditioned! If your barleywine is barrel conditioned then expect some of the harsher flavours to be subdued and mellowed while this process may also impart other flavours such as whisky depending on the barrels used.
Expect a colour that is anywhere from light amber to dark brown, but should still let some light through – we’re not talking about a black stout or porter here. As you might expect from the name, a barleywine is all about showcasing and accentuating the flavours from the barley malt. With an aged beer like this you will expect lots of caramel, toffee, dried fruit and even molasses flavours coming through from the malts. A good barley wine should still be balanced, but how pronounced the hops are will depend on the style. American barleywines are known for their stronger hop profiles coming through and adding more bitterness than their English counterparts. Both styles should be sweeter than most beers you’re accustomed to. Expect a beer that is full bodied and produces some nice balanced heat from the alcohol content.
In my own ‘cellar’ I have two vintages of the Driftwood Old Cellar Dweller, a Howe Sound Wooly Bugger, and a Thor’s Hammer from Central City (well actually as you can see from the photos, the Thor’s Hammer is no longer tucked away). All three of these barleywines are brewed differently, and for each beer the brewer is going for something different. The Howe Sound, for example is known to carry more sweetness than the others, while the Driftwood is expected to have more candied fruits in the flavour profile. The Central City version is much darker as you can see, and is much more caramel along with plenty of hops to balance out the malt profile.
Regardless of which BC Barleywine you choose, expect to find something that will challenge your palate. Grab a bottle to share with some friends. Let the bottle warm up to around 10-12C before diving in, or try it cool and let it warm up in the glass to discover how the beer is affected by the temperature. Make the barleywine your new quintessential winter warmer.