Light, refreshing and ice-cold are the buzzwords that likely spring to mind when most people think about beer. But there is a class of beer that is anything but. Full-bodied, chewy and warming are more apt descriptors for the ultimate ale of winter — barleywine.
Barleywine is exactly what the name implies, beer brewed to the alcoholic strength of wine. The term was first applied commercially in 1870 by the Bass Brewery of England to identify their finest No. 1 Ale. Barleywine is often a brewery's strongest offering — a special beer designed to warm patrons as the weather turns cold. It's a beer meant for sipping, not quaffing.
Think of barleywine as the port, Madeira or sherry of the beer world. Its layered depth is best appreciated in a snifter, the big bowl allowing the accumulation of alluring aromatics. And let these beers warm up. The complexities are muted when it's served too cold. I like to let refrigerated bottles sit on the counter for 20 to 30 minutes before pouring.
Anchor Old Foghorn is a great place to start your exploration of the style. It was the first barleywine brewed in the United States after Prohibition. At 8.8 percent alcohol, Old Foghorn is less boozy than most. Complex yet approachable, it balances sweet, caramel and brown sugar malt with moderate bitterness and earthy/herbal hop flavors. Subtle hints of dark fruit add interest. It's everything a barleywine should be, but doesn't overwhelm the senses. I think of it as an everyday barleywine.
Old Blaggard is a limited-release barleywine from Summit Brewing Co. This one has a fresh brightness that stands out in a style that can sometimes come off as sticky-sweet. Rich toffee and biscuit malt finds complement and contrast in the golden raisin and orange marmalade notes from hops and fermentation. Bitterness is low, but with a sharp edge that keeps the sweetness in check. This beer is ready to drink right now, but a bottle or two stashed in a cellar should deliver delicious rewards in a year or two.
In contrast to Old Blaggard's brightness, Bell's Third Coast Old Ale focuses on the dark side of the style. Malt is firmly in control, leading with notes of burnt caramel, brown sugar, molasses and toasted grain. There is even a low hint of coffee-like roast. Luscious layers of dark fruit — dates, black cherries and raisins — complete the picture. This is a soothing winter warmer meant for cozy fireside sipping.
Alcoholic potency and an emphasis on malt make barleywines good candidates for aging. Flavors continue to develop over time. The effects of oxidation bring out pleasing notes of leather, vanilla and sherry. Many breweries now vintage-date their barleywines. Cellared examples can occasionally be found in stores, bars and restaurants; they are worth checking out.
This cellarability also makes barleywines perfect for barrel aging. Indeed, barrel-aged barleywines abound. Brewers typically employ used barrels that once held whiskey or some other spirit, and the beer picks up the character of the barrel's previous contents.
Lift Bridge Commander Barleywine is a great example. The beer in the bottle is actually an artful blend of beers of several vintages that have been kept for a year or more in bourbon barrels. Intense aromas of caramel, cherries, oranges, rum raisins, vanilla and vaporous alcohol foreshadow the taste treat that follows with the first sip. All of those make an appearance in the flavor, accompanied by subtle charred wood and bourbon. Flavors reminiscent of coffee ice cream come out as the beer continues to warm in the glass. Each layer of flavor stands out with clarity. The bourbon adds depth without overpowering the beer.
With the Barrel Reserve edition of its delectable Old Stock Ale, Oregon's North Coast Brewing offers an interesting exploration of the impact different barrels exert on beer. Each vintage is split and aged in a different type of whiskey barrel — wheat whiskey, rye or bourbon — to stunning effect.
The 2014 vintage aged in wheat whiskey barrels is my favorite. It's surprisingly light and lively for a beer with more than 14 percent alcohol. The finish is extraordinarily dry for such a big beer. Sweet toffee dominates the palate, supported by flavors of whiskey, vanilla and faint banana. Think bananas Foster. As the beer opens up, bright notes of orange citrus and baking spices provide a welcome lift. This would be lovely with an aged Stilton cheese at the end of a meal.
The rye barrel version of the 2014 vintage is a dark and brooding beer, better suited to enjoying with a fine cigar. Raisiny dark fruit tones take the lead here, with molasses, vanilla and toffee close behind. The spicy bite of rye brings a sweetness-cutting kick. The off-dry finish lingers long on raisin, caramel, molasses and spice.
The 2013 vintage aged in bourbon barrels is the biggest and booziest of the trio. Whiskey is strong in the aroma and clearly carries over into the flavor. Rum-soaked raisins and caramel provide ample sweetness to carry it. Hints of dark cherries and sherry-like oxidation round it out.
These Old Stock Barrel Reserve beers have very limited distribution in the metro area. You will need to hit the specialty beer stores to find it. But they are well worth the hunt.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.