Anatomy of barley wine

The barley wine, one of the strongest tipples of the beer canon, is designed for cold days barley lit by the winter sun. Here’s all you need to know about it and three of the best. Image: The British Library

 

A barley wine is a contemplative beer, the kind of beer that you pour out in small measures, a beer that has rich fruity overtones, luscious maltiness and a fiery booziness. It’s usually dark amber in colour, but there are also pale barley wines, and it’s strong enough to make a cat speak.

Because of its strength it has always been a minority pursuit, but sustained study of its attributes reveals a beautiful beer that could be seen as the height of the brewer’s art. British brewers got there first but now barley wine is produced all over the world with North American riffs on the style invariably more hop forward. Drink deeply and study hard this style.  ATJ

STRENGTH
Some start at the relatively light strength of 7.5%, while others stretch out their limbs towards 12 or 13%. So far no one has claimed a session barley wine.

FLAVOUR
Lush is the word you might be looking for on the first sip, with rich notes of dark or dried fruit, smooth chocolate, caramel, vanilla and occasionally a bracing bitterness.

APPEARANCE
Dark mysterious amber or a well-polished mahogany though some barley wines can also be reddish gold in colour. Dive into an enticing tan-coloured head of foam.

HISTORY
‘The barley wine of the English Rhine’ was a slogan used by a brewery in the 1880s, though it wasn’t until the early 1900s after Bass’ No1 Burton Ale was called a barley wine that it was more commonly used.

AKA
Some would say that barley wine is also interchangeable with a Burton ale or even an old ale. Best to keep things simple though.

FOOD
It’s an end-of-dinner drink so eschew the port for the barley wine, especially if it’s accompanied by a slab of creamy, pungent Stilton — that way heaven lies.

WHERE TO DRINK
Because of its strength, it’s either a seasonal or brewed intermittently. Scour your local bottle shop

WEIRD FACT
British barley wine drinkers used to call the style a ‘sitting down beer’, because they had less distance to fall if they’d imbibed too deeply of it. Honest.

THREE OF THE BEST

/  Cameron’s, Where the Buffalo Roam, 11.2%
Time well spent in bourbon barrels gives this Canadian barley wine a sleek and warming character with delicate waves of vanilla, dried fruit and rich malt.

/  Arbor, Barley Davidson, 9.7%
Citra, Simcoe and Mosaic combine with nine months of barrel ageing to create a luscious and potent, fruity and caramel-smooth
palate-pleaser.

/  Harvey’s, Christmas Ale, 7.5%
If you left this burnished mahogany hued and richly malty beauty out for Santa on Christmas Eve he’d be reluctant to leave and demand more.