If you’ve been through the aisles at your local beer emporium lately, you’ve likely noticed at least a few barleywines on the shelves. Indeed, many of America’s most popular microbreweries are starting to offer this unique, and, for most of us, foreign style. So what exactly is barleywine, and what should you expect if you decide to try one?
Beer or Wine?
First things first – is barleywine wine? Or is it beer? Or something else entirely? In reality, barleywine is simply a style of beer, whose origins can be traced back to England well over a century ago (and probably much farther back). Barleywine isn’t like the average beer you find at the megamart, though. Below, we’ve put together the beginner’s guide to barleywine. We think you’ll find that trying it for the first time will be well worth your while.
We’re guessing the most important question you have is “what does it taste like?” Barleywines have a wide range of flavor profiles. Some are rich with dominant flavors of stone fruit (think plums), and others are extremely hoppy, like an IPA. Whichever you choose, you’ll find that the alcohol in barleywine is much more noticeable than it is in the beer you’re used to. That’s because barleywines to tend to have an ABV% of anywhere between 8 and 13%!
Again, there’s a range with this style, but the lightest barleywines tend to begin with a rich, amber color. Barleywines can be as dark as a porter or stout, though, so if you like darker beers, choose a barleywine that fits your preferences. If you like a lighter brew, try a lighter-colored barleywine (likely to be hoppier with less of a rich, fruit flavor).
You’ll definitely notice the alcohol in the aroma, but aside from that, the aroma of a barleywine tends to follow the same rules as more typical beer. The darker the barleywine, the more likely the aroma is to be full of coffee, toffee, or chocolate notes. Conversely, with a lighter barleywine, you’re liable to find an in-your-face, hop-heavy aroma similar to an IPA.
Now that you know a thing or two about barleywine, which examples might be a good bet for a first experience with barleywine? We recommend trying one of the following, but a beer emporium or higher-end supermarket will likely give you the opportunity to browse a local selection.
XS Old Crustacean – Rogue Ales Brewery – Newport, OR
A deep, dark barleywine with rich notes of fruit and burnt sugar, but a healthy serving of hops to maintain a well-balanced flavor profile.
Olde School Barleywine – Dogfish Head Brewery – Milton, DE
This medium-bodied barleywine is bursting with fruity sweetness – think plums, dates, figs, etc. Be careful with this brew – it clocks in at 15% ABV, so this is definitely for sipping!