A step-by-step Barleywine tasting flight to help you distinguish between styles
The Brewers Association defines American Barleywine as having:
An amber to deep red & copper-garnet color pour;
Caramel and/or toffee malt aromas with high residual malty sweetness, often with caramel and/or toffee ﬂavors, as well;
Hop aroma & flavor are medium to very high. American hop varieties are often used to achieve a high bitterness;
Complex alcohols are evident. Fruity esters are often high with vinous, sherry-like or port-like attributes considered positive when in harmony with an overall flavor profile;
And, a full-bodied mouthfeel.
English or British Barleywines have:
A tawny copper to deep red/copper-garnet color pour;
High residual malty sweetness on the Aroma & Flavor;
Hop aroma and ﬂavor are very low to medium. Mild, English-type hops are often used but are not required for this style;
Low to medium bitterness;
The complexity of alcohols and fruity ester attributes are often high and balanced with caramel and some vinous aromas and/or ﬂavors;
And, a full-bodied mouthfeel.
So, the main difference is that American-style Barleywines have an intense hop bitterness, while English-style Barleywines are typically sweet, rich, and dessert-like.
But, to really distinguish between them, you have to taste exemplary examples of each style side-by-side. Below is a tasting menu designed to educate your palate on the delicious nuances found in Barleywine.
As with anything, it’s best to start with the classics. So, beginning your tasting journey with a beer that First We Feast, Vinepair, and Food and Wineall named “one of the most influential breweries of all time,” is only fitting.
Bigfoot is a barbarian of a brew that’s been inspiring the craft brewing scene since 1983!
Upon pouring, you’ll immediately smell caramel malts and hop greenery. Its 9.6% ABV makes it noticeably strong to the taste, but robust flavors mellow out its boozy intensity. Bigfoot is prized by beer collectors for its supreme cellarability.
You can’t miss the bold caramel, toffee, and pine resin character. But sip slowly, and see if your taste buds can pick out notes of brown sugar, dried cherry, fig, raisin, date, and other dark fruit notes. The brewery’s aggressive hopping with classic West Coast hops brings a bouquet of floral notes with nuances of white grapefruit that brighten as the beer warms.
Let’s continue our learning experience with another American Barleywine that helped lay the foundation for the style. Its massive malt profile and aggressive, bitter citrus hop bill make Old Numbskull easy to compare to Bigfoot.
Have your tongue search for notes of cabernet sauvignon, charred caramel, doughy fruitcake, fig, canned orange slices, raisin, and grapefruit bitters.
Although many of the biggest names in American Barleywine come from the West Coast, there are definitely some important ones scattered around the country. This bold beast comes from an Indiana brewery known for dark brews with giant ABVs — 3 Floyds.
In their Behemoth Barleywine, you’ll still encounter a prominent hop kick, but overall this brew is much sweeter than the first two selections. You’ll likely get a boozy nose of honey-roasted peanuts, fruitcake, figs, and some herbal citrus. The taste is heavy with toffee and honey, and amplified with spiced orange peel and woody char. There are pine and citrus bitters on the finish. Behemoth is an excellent example of how complex an American Barleywine can be.
Gigantic’s Massive drinks like a how-to guide for brewers looking for something more intense. Traditionally, brewers in the midlands of England boiled their Barleywine for longer times to amplify the flavors. In Massive, Gigantic uses the same classic British Marris Otter Pale Malt that they use in Europe. But, not only do they boil it for eight hours to give the beer a deep ruby color and extremely rich malt flavor, they also add massive amounts of hops, making it an exemplary example of an American-style Barleywine.
Your Massive tasting experience will unveil sweet caramel, candied orange, and bitter, piney resin. Keep sipping, and you may uncover nuances of creamy cherry cordial, dried fruit, fig, and toffee-glazed prune. And more citrus-like bitterness arrives on the finish.
Next, let’s head to the Midwest for a rich taste of Michigan’s Perennial Artisan Ales.
Their Vermilion Barleywine is so English that even its name is a British term used to describe its ruby-tinted brown pour.
You won’t find any hop-bite to this one! Vermilion is truly a dessert for beer drinkers with adult tastes (yet a bit of a sweet tooth). It’s loaded with notes of toffee, caramel, and pecan pie. And it’s boozy, sure, but incredibly smooth, so you get the comforting warmth of the alcohol in your belly but none of the sting in your throat.
Investigate a little further, and you’ll discover there is, in fact, a hop presence, it just isn’t obvious without the bitterness. There are some candied citrus and stone fruit notes the brewers evoke from a gentle use of hops.
We have to bring it back west, to demonstrate that the brewers out there aren’t one-trick-ponies when it comes to Barleywines either. And what better way to show it than with Oregon’s award-winning veteran brewers at Deschutes?
You’ll taste the influence of Deschutes’ Northwest roots in each oaky vanilla, caramel-spiked apple cider sip of Mirror Mirror. In true English Barleywine form, your tongue will unravel sweet plums and raisins covered in rich toffee. And, its flavors of white wine and campfire wood are much more distinct.
Traveling just a few hours north of Deschutes, we land at Seattle’s Fremont Brewing, home to the legendary English Barleywine series the brewery crafted to celebrate their 1,000th beer — Brew 1000. They’ve since followed it up with Brew 2000 and 3000 — both of which have become some of the most-traded-for Barleywines of all time — and we expect the same from the newly released Brew 4000.
The brewers use floor-malted English barley for this English-style Barleywine. Floor-malting gives the malt a very rich, aromatic flavor that is far more intense than is usually achieved by today’s time-efficient, industrial malting procedures.
In Brew 3000, your taste buds will be entertained by sweet, syrupy fig notes, lots of brown sugar, and candied stone fruit, swirled around new leather and dry oak. Your tasters aren’t done yet. Sip further for creamy layers of vanilla, toffee, caramel, and peanut brittle evoked from barrel aging for up to a year.
Third Course - What Barrel Aging Does For Barleywine:
The barrel character found in Brew 3000 makes for a nice segue into our barrel aged third course! In this portion of the tasting, you’ll dive into the evolving characteristics of Barrel Aged Barleywine.
Firestone Walker Helldorado is a timeless example of what barrel aging can do for the style. This brew begins as an Imperial Blonde Ale and morphs into, what the brewery calls, a Blonde Barleywine. They say that Helldorado has the light color of any beer in their barrel program. And if you had to place it as either American or English, it’d fit better in the latter because of its lack of bitter hop character.
Please don’t get it twisted, there is still a hop presence, but similar to the English Barleywines we walked you through earlier, the fruity El Dorado Hops deliver subtle fruitiness that plays well in a boozy, honey liqueur of vanilla, lavender, and lightly charred caramel.
Firestone believes this beer gets better and better the longer it’s in the barrel and they’ve let it rest for up to 18 months to really bring out the creamy, woody, vanilla notes and completely mellow out any heat from the booze.
Anchorage A Deal With The Devil Barrel Aged American Barleywine
This is your nightcap. A Deal With The Devil has been named the ‘Best Barleywine in the World’ by a plethora of sources. It’s even surpassed the confines of style and places on best-of lists across all styles on many websites and magazines.
Galaxy Hops add bitter-free tropical notes of mango and passion fruit to the melted caramel fountain that pours over your tongue with each sip of ADWTD.
Anchorage’s Barrel Aged Barleywine masterpiece spent over eight months in Cognac barrels. This aging evoked deep notes toffee-drizzled, candied stone fruit you’d experience from sipping Cognac neat, but with absolutely no alcoholic heat whatsoever.
After completing this tasting adventure (even if it was only vicariously through reading) you should have a better understanding of the most common Barleywine styles. If you can’t find each one of the beers on this tasting menu, don’t fret. With the help of this new knowledge, the genre will feel more accessible, and there’s a whole world of other craft Barleywines out there waiting for you to explore!
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