Style Profile: Barleywine

Posted on August 27th, 2009

Bass No. 1 ale, the first commercial barley wine. Image via: <a  title=

Bass No. 1 ale, the first commercial barley wine. Image via: Joyce Images

Don’t let it’s name fool you, Barleywine is still very much beer, albeit one which rivals wines in strength (7-12% Alc/volume) and complexity. This beer was originally brewed by English aristocrats of the 18th century who wanted a strong alcoholic beverage of their own to compete with the wine made by the French with which they were constantly at war. These early barley wines were mostly brewed and consumed by the aristocrats in their private breweries, but in 1900 Bass debuted the first commercial barley wine, Bass No. 1 Ale. Although most wine doesn’t actually taste like wine, it has a flavor and beauty all its own that will quickly make you forget about wine (or anything else for that matter.)

In a lot of ways barleywine is more of a loose guideline that a strict style, there is quite a bit of variety when it comes to what brewers will call a barleywine. Generally speaking though, barleywines start with a solid base of pale barley malt, to which frequently sugar or honey is added. American barleywines tend to match the strongly sweet and malty flavors with an equally strong hop presence, sometimes even dry hopping the beer to give it some added hop aromas. British barleywines on the other hand tend to be more balanced and rounded, with strong dried fruit elements to the taste. However it’s brewed, the hallmark of any good barleywine is a malty, complex body paired strong alcohol notes, while generally avoiding the especially dark and smoky flavors of something like a porter.

Although the style lost much of it’s popularity by the 1960’s, the American craft beer movement has resurrected the style and it has become a favorite among daring homebrewers and craft brewers alike. Due to concerns this style’s name might confuse some consumers, it’s required that all barleywine in America be labeled as “barleywine-style ale.” I’d surprised  if anyone has ever picked up a bottle thinking it was wine, but who knows?

What’s your favorite barleywine? Next time you try one let us know what you think about it by tweeting your beer and adding the ‘#mybeer’ hashtag.