As the dark beer specialist, The Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery has encountered many misconceptions about beer color and how it relates to flavor and body. Dark beer is not always heavy, full-bodied, or chock full of alcohol. In fact, one of the lightest beers we brew every year is our Schwarzbier: a black lager. It is crisp, clean, light-bodied, and downright refreshing, but that is for another blog entry. Alternatively, the Duck-Rabbit Barleywine is a copper color, yet it is one of the largest in flavor and body of all of our beers and certainly has the highest ABV at 11 percent.
As with many beers that are rooted in tradition, the barley wine style is afflicted with historical identity issues. It is incorrect to refer to a single type of beer known distinctly as barley wine before the 20th century, lest we fall into a pit of anachronistic despair. Refer to Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile article for a more thorough dissection of this topic. To (very) briefly summarize, in Great Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, barley wines were vaguely synonymous with strong ales (implying an assortment of styles), old ales that tended to be strong for better preservation, and Burton Ales. Pre 19th-century mentions of barley wine were merely poetizing the word, ‘beer’ without denoting style. While there are occasional references to barley wines in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century when the barley wine designation for certain breweries’ strong ale was used consistently.
In any case, barley wines were prominent and delicious enough in Britain by the 1970s to inspire a couple of Californian craft brewers to bring the style to the American west coast. Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing Company brewed the first commercial example of a barley wine in the United States in 1976, called Old Foghorn. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms would not endorse the name, ‘barley wine’ due to the confusion of calling a beer a wine, so ‘barley wine’ became ‘barleywine style ale’ for label approval purposes. In 1983, Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada released Bigfoot, arguably the first American style of barleywine ale. Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot is a lot more hop forward than its British counterparts, of which Anchor Brewing’s Old Foghorn is closely reminiscent.
In every sense, the barley wine is still a beer. It uses the same kinds of ingredients – water, malt, hops, and yeast – and overall procedures that go into making a standard ale, though the proportions change quite a bit. During the brew, a barley wines’ ratio of grain to water is much higher than that of its pale ale cousins, resulting in stronger malty flavors and fuller body while providing a lot more sugar for the yeast to consume. Barley wines are therefore high in alcohol content. They also tend to be substantially hopped to help counterbalance the malt intensity, though American styles tip that balance even more towards hop bitterness than is common in British barley wines.
In spite of the barley wines’ disputed heritage, any reference of a strong ale or an old ale as a barley wine was and still might be appropriate. Consider, for example, the physical traits of barley wines. They are rather wine-like in ABV, averaging between 9 and 12 percent. Contributing to their synonymic confusion with old ales, they are also commonly cellared. Many who brew barley wines intend them for immediate consumption, but many also recommend aging anywhere between 6 months up to a few years. With American style barley wines especially, where hops take center stage, aging promotes the break down of the volatile hop aroma and flavor compounds, allowing the malt character to peak through more significantly. Beneath their hoppy shells, barley wines boast a significant and sweet malty depth that delivers dried fruit, caramel, and toffee flavors that, like wine, can stand out with age as alcohol warmth diminishes. It is no wonder that barley wine (as barley wine, strong ale, or old ale) was sometimes offered as an alternative to claret in a nationalizing, 19th-century Britain.
The Duck-Rabbit Barleywine delivers classic Duck-Rabbit oomph and balance. A fresh Barleywine releases citrusy, somewhat floral and piney aromas that combine with toffee and caramel. This is an expansive beer with legs, giving your taste buds a first impression of sticky caramel, toffee, and dark, dried fruit like prunes. There is an underlying bitterness that persists through the Barleywine experience, rounding the malty sweetness to a delightfully bitter and herbaceous, piney finish. The alcohol warmth is detectable but subtly woven through the many layers of malty, hoppy goodness. Somehow, all of these components are individually conspicuous but work together quite beautifully in tandem.
One year later? Much of the hoppy aroma has dissipated, but slight citrus yields to the dark fruit and toffee malty scents. There is a little more breadiness detectable in addition the other malt flavors that come to the fore, but a background of bitterness lingers. Overall, fresh (aka mild) or cellared, the Duck-Rabbit Barleywine leaves a long-lasting impression.
This blog entry refers to the following sources:
Beer Judge Certification Program, Inc. “Category 19 – Strong Ale.” 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines. 2015.
Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). “Barley Wine, Different Styles.” 2015
Cornell, Martyn. “So what IS the difference between barley wine and old ale?” Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile: Beer now and then. 14 Sep. 2010.
Kemp, Florian. “Barley Wine, Stylistically Speaking.” All About Beer Magazine (28)6. 1 Jan. 2008.
Tepedelen, Adem. “Barleywine.” Imbibe, Liquid Culture. 16 Oct. 2009.