Barleywine—what a divisive, misunderstood, eclectic and genuinely strange style of beer this is. In the course of your life as a craft beer geek, you will meet people who rave about barleywine. You will meet devotees who swear up and down that barleywine is the greatest beer style ever conceived. You will also meet people who detest the flavor profiles of both classic and modern, barrel-aged barleywines. But you won’t meet many folks who are in between. For whatever reason, barleywine seems to inspire reactions that are both polemic and extreme. It’s the odd nature of this style.
The roots of barleywine are nebulous and ill-defined compared to some other British beer styles, so I will defer to the great Martyn Cornell, chiefest of British beer historians—this is as good a musing upon the historical titles of “barleywine” and “old ale” that exists online. In short, despite being a term that has technically existed since ancient Greece, our modern conception of “barleywine” is not really a style that can be traced back in the same form to a pre-industrial root. In more modern times, it’s simply a marketing label that evolved to describe/define the big, malt-forward English strong ales that we also sometimes call “old ale” in the modern age. For this reason, there’s functionally little difference between the two today, at least when describing the English version of the style.
American barleywine, on the other hand, is its own beast. In the same way as we have with so many other craft beer styles, the American response to English barleywine was “make it bigger and hop the bejeezus out of it.” The result was the emergence of a style—often credited as having begun with Anchor Brewing Co.’s Old Foghorn in 1976—that exists as a close relative of old-school American DIPA, featuring a balance of caramel/toasted malt, booze and hops, with pronounced alcohol presence and bitterness. One could argue that the original barleywines were the precursors of “triple IPA” as well. In fact, one could even say that as DIPAs have become progressively less malt-balanced to allow for “double dry hop” experimentation and whatnot, that American barleywine is now often closer to old-school DIPA than most DIPAs have become.
Of course in the last decade, things have changed mightily for the style once again. Although still commonly produced by American breweries, barleywines have been assumed wholeheartedly into the culture of American barrel aging. You can see this in the sheer number of barrel-aged barleywines entered into this tasting—there were more barrel-aged beers than “classic” barleywines, by a healthy number. Like imperial stout (where we also received more barrel-aged than non-barrel-aged beers when we blind-tasted them in January), the style has become a canvas for experimentation with barrel-aging, which has made them bigger, boozier and richer than ever.
So let’s get into this booze-soaked journey into the heart of barleywine.
Special note: After almost an entire year of avoiding a large number of waxed beer bottles, this barleywine tasting was like Wax II: The Waxening. Please feel free to refresh yourself with our diatribe on why waxed beer bottles suck, and its follow-up, where we tested a number of wax removal tools.
A Note on Beer Acquisition
As in most of our blind tastings at Paste, the vast majority of these barleywines were sent directly to the office by the breweries that choose to participate, with additional beers acquired by us via locally available purchases and the occasional trade. We always do our best to reach out to breweries we’re aware of that make exemplary versions of particular styles, but things always do slip through the cracks. We apologize for a few significant omissions that we couldn’t acquire, either due to seasonality or market shortages. There will never be a “perfect” tasting lineup, much as we continue to try.
Rules and Procedure
- This is a tasting of barleywines, largely determined by how the breweries chose to label their products. The rules for entry were broad—as long as it said “barleywine,” it was included, and we also chose to include beers labeled as “wheatwines,” “ryewines,” “oatwines,” etc. There was no ABV limit, obviously. When in doubt, we simply allow a brewery’s marketing to define a beer’s style, and expect them to stick to the designation they’ve chosen.
- This is one of the few tastings where we’ve allowed aged/vintage entries from breweries. We did this because many breweries don’t make a barleywine every year, in the interest of the widest field of participants.
- There was a limit of two entries per brewery. The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, brewmasters and beer reps. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines. As such, this is not a BJCP-style tasting.
The Field: Barleywines #62-26
There’s no way around it, so I’ll just say it: This was a real up-and-down, roller coaster of a tasting. We tasted some exquisite beers in it, but also more than a few that were punishingly bad. Suffice to say, when barleywines go wrong, they really go wrong, especially when barrel aging is involved. In most of these cases, we’re talking about beers that are either punishingly boozy or so sweet that they could send you into a diabetic coma after just looking at them.
Which leads us to the crux of what often separates the good from the bad here, which is how these beers handle sweetness and residual sugar. Barleywine is always going to be a sweeter style, which tends to be doubly so when coming out of bourbon or rum barrels, but that doesn’t mean they have to be overtly “sugary” dessert potions. The best of them find a delicate balance between the richness and decadence of caramelized sugar and a balancing element found in either booze, or hops, or wood. And the best of the best have a degree of subtlety that is more than just a hammer of booze and sugar hitting you over the head.
As ever, the beers listed below in The Field are simply presented in alphabetical order, which means they’re not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Boulder Beer Co. Killer Penguin
Central Waters BBA Barleywine
COOP Ale Works Territorial Reserve Bourbon Barrel Barleywine
Dark Horse/Three Floyds Oil of Gladness
DC Brau Sleeping Standing Up
D9 Brewing Co. King’s Bridge
Dogfish Head Puddin’ Wine
Dry Dock Bligh’s Barleywine
Elevation Beer Co. Arete
Elevation Beer Co. Elevated PSA
Fort George Brewery Light as a Feather
4 Noses Brewing BW
Four Peaks Hopsquatch
Funky Buddha Strawberry Shortcake
Gigantic Brewing Co. Massive
Iron John’s Collin’s Folly
Iron John’s Hardy Thomas
Jackie O’s Wood Ya Honey
JW Lees Harvest Ale (Calvados)
JW Lees Harvest Ale (Sherry Cask)
Lagunitas Olde GnarlyWine
Madtree Ye Olde Battering Ram
Monday Night Brewing Entente Cordiale
Perennial Artisan Ales Devil’s Heart of Gold
The Pike Brewing Co. Old Bawdy
Reuben’s Brews Three Ryes Men
Rhinegeist Brewery Gramps
Rogue Ales Old Crustacean
Rogue Ales Tree-D
Scratchtown Brewing Co. Keys to the Asylum
Service Brewing Co. 3 Wheatwine
Swamp Head Brewery Warmouth
Threes Brewing Sound of Exclamation
Two Roads Brewing Co. 20 Ton Blonde Barleywine
Upslope Brewing Co. Tequila Barrel Barleywine
Wild Heaven Beer Height of Civilization
Yellowhammer Brewing Barleywine
Next: The finals! Barleywines #25-1