The Finals: Barleywines #25-1
25. Prison City Pub & Brewery Chin Check
City: Auburn, NY
The verdict: It’s little surprise that the brewery who made our #1 IPA in a blind tasting of 247 IPAs back in 2016 offered up a solid example of the hop-forward American barleywine, which were present in smaller quantities than we expected for this style. This was one of the only beers to really overtly combine the juicy, tropical and ctirus-forward hop profile so favored in current American IPA with the booze and slightly syrupy malt flavors more expected of barleywine, and the result was something that isn’t all that far off from DIPA or triple IPA. In particular, this one is very citrusy, with a prominent orange juice note that is a refreshing change of pace from so many of the bourbon-soaked barleywines present in this tasting. Although there are other hop-forward barleywines in this ranked portion of the list, Prison City’s was probably the most modern of them in terms of presentation. We look forward to trying more of their hop-forward beer when we embark on the next huge IPA blind tasting this spring, where they will look to defend their crown.
24. The Bruery White Oak
City: Placentia, CA
The verdict: This longtime Bruery offering is 50% bourbon barrel-aged wheatwine, which qualifies it for this tasting, with the remaining 50% being a Belgian golden strong ale. It’s certainly an odd bird in this field, lighter in color and texture, and hiding its 11.5% ABV very well, but with a powerfully fruity character that immediately makes it seem distinct. One might think it was aged in apple brandy barrels or something of that nature, given the green apple fruitiness that is particularly distinctive, likely a result of the Belgian yeast strain at play. Slightly tart and viniferous, White Oak possesses a tangy quality that plays nicely with flavors of stone fruit, hay, fresh bread and vanilla. It’s a different flavor wheelhouse than most of the entries on this “barleywine” list, but it’s still a beer that is surprising and vibrant, almost a decade after it was first introduced. That’s certainly worth something.
23. Parish Brewing Co. Grand Reserve
City: Broussard, LA
The verdict: It will become clear pretty quickly while going down this list that standard, non-barrel-aged barleywines didn’t have the easiest time standing up to the flavors of the barrel-aged examples, so in order to make the ranked portion, the classic barleywines had to be that much better. This is that kind of beer, an exemplary take on American-style barleywine from Parish that features some of the best balance we saw in this particular substyle throughout the tasting. Drier than many of the others, it features a toasted bread/biscuity malt backbone, supported by subtle (but notable) hopping, which contributes piney, floral and herbal notes. Clean, well-composed and well balanced, it’s an excellent example of what the “base style” of American barleywine is all about.
22. Our Mutual Friend Brewing Co. Fixed Blade
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: This burly beer from Denver’s Our Mutual Friend Brewing Co. is aged in rye whiskey barrels, a distinction that can sometimes be difficult to quantify in comparison with the more ubiquitous bourbon barrels on the market. Regardless, this is a bracing, assertive barleywine that brings some big, sweet, fruit-driven flavors of banana custard and touches of sherry-like, vinous white grape. From one score sheet: “Winey, big fruitiness and booze, dig the rye bread nose.” Another sheet refers to the beer as “a bruiser,” although by no means anywhere near the booziest of the tasting—those beers didn’t tend to make the ranked portion, after all. But there’s no shortage of character here, and that is attributable at least as much to the base beer as to the presence of the barrel. Just a big, assertive brew.
21. Cherry Street Brewing Cooperative Barrel-Aged 12/12/12
City: Cumming, GA
The verdict: 12/12/12 functions as the yearly anniversary ale for this Georgia brewing cooperative, which takes the “12” gimmick pretty seriously through the use of 12 different malts and 12 different hop varietals. That beer then spent some time in bourbon barrels, and here you go—a very boozy, sweet, decadent example of BA barleywine. This is a good example of a beer that is just barely on the right side of the sweetness/booze divide, bringing massive flavors of oak, vanilla, caramel and burnt sugar into play that are almost too much, but ultimately very gratifying. There’s no missing that this is a bourbon barrel beer, that is for certain. “Heavy, big and sweet, but not overwhelming,” says one score sheet. “Super boozy, but it works,” says another. “Dark fruity, plummy goodness, merged with whiskey and oak.” It’s a fine line, but this beer is on the right side of it.
20. Midnight Sun Brewing Co. Termination Dust
City: Anchorage, AK
The verdict: In a certain thematic way, you’d almost expect an Alaskan brewery to specialize in making good barleywines, given their climate, and Midnight Sun proves this point by landing both of their entries on the ranked portion of this list. The first, Termination Dust, is a “Belgian-style” barleywine in bourbon barrels, and a pretty nicely balanced one at that. Dark and viscous, this one is bringing a bit more roasted and toasty malt flavors into play, with a thick and chewy texture that works well with a dark fruit finish. Barrel presence is a bit more subtle than most, putting the impetus more on malt-driven flavors. From one score sheet: “cherry fruit and slightly hoppy, with mild coffee roastiness.” Good stuff, but Midnight Sun also pitched us another that scored even better.
19. Lift Bridge Brewery Commander
City: Stillwater, MN
The verdict: It’s interesting to me that you don’t see a lot of spice additions in American barleywines—given how common they are in modern barrel-aged stout, why not in barleywine? Lift Bridge was obviously thinking similarly, so they dosed this one generously with cardamom. If you’ve never had cardamom, imagine a spice somewhat similar to an exotic cinnamon; you may have experienced it in chai tea or Turkish coffee. Regardless, it works pretty well here, in a beer that was quickly dubbed “Christmas barleywine” by several of the tasters. Sweet, strong and dark fruity, the presence of the spice was unmistakable. One score sheet describes “slight cinnamon and spiced pears,” and notes that the resulting beer still “drinks elegantly.” It’s sort of surprising that we didn’t have more beers in this mold, considering how fun this one was to drink, but we expect nothing less from Lift Bridge, a brewery that has quietly performed well in numerous blind tastings of big, barrel-aged beer styles.
18. The Veil Brewing Co. Circle of Wolves (Bourbon Barrel)
City: Richmond, VA
The verdict: The Veil deservedly gets a lot of attention and press for its NE-IPAs, but on any given day they can also stun you with a big barrel-aged monster, and the two barrel-aged versions we received of this beer were evidence enough of that. The first version of Circle of Wolves spent 20 months in bourbon barrels, but pure booze/liquor is interestingly not the main element that they seem to contribute. The base beer here is a very dark English barleywine that really stretches the boundaries between barleywine and imperial stout, and the barrel-aging only adds to this impression. It’s extremely chocolatey—fudgy and dark, intense cocoa, followed by vanilla and maple syrup. Thick, viscous and chewy in texture, it’s also quite sweet, a heavy-hitter all the way, but actually holds the booze in check pretty well. It might end up being too sweet for some, or “not barleywine enough” for others, but this is a delicious dessert beer, regardless of what you call it.
17. Drake’s Brewing Co. Santa’s Brass
City: San Leandro, CA
The verdict: If a 14.5% ABV barleywine aged in bourbon and port barrels is what Drake’s refers to as “slightly sweet” in their description, then we’re genuinely terrified to see what their idea of “quite sweet” would be. Regardless, this is one of those huge, decadent takes on barrel-aged barleywine that toes the line between “rich” and “overly rich,” while landing just barely on the right side of things. Big, dark and with more than a little imperial stout character, Santa’s Brass brings big flavors of chocolate, figs and dessert wine—or what one tasting sheet describes as “chocolate bourbon balls,” which sounds like an awesome dessert itself. Another tasting sheet compares the beer to pecan pie, and every taster at some point used the words “decadent,” “boozy” or “rich.” However, there’s enough going on here that you’ll find yourself drawn in for yet another sip every time. It’s like “guilty pleasure beer.”
16. Night Shift Brewing Titus Andronicus
City: Everett, MA
The verdict: Props to Night Shift for being one of the most generally consistent and high-scoring breweries in these blind tastings across a variety of styles—these guys are doing good work on practically any beer they make. This one is aged in port-finished bourbon barrels, which contribute a little something that the first score sheet refers to as “figgy pudding.” Deep caramelization is present, along with well-balanced bourbon and hints of oak and baking spices. This one isn’t quite as flashy as some of the others, but it’s a very well-composed beer with a little something for everyone. Plenty of dark fruit flavors, brown sugar and well-integrated booze. Nice work.
15. Goose Island Bourbon County Barleywine
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: This is one of those beers that has, in the same manner as Bourbon County Stout, set some of the standards for barrel-aged barleywines, but at the same time it’s become easier to recognize even in a blind tasting lineup because it has a very specific profile. In short, if it says “bourbon county” on the label, then you know it’s going to be bringing the barrel in all of its aspects. These beers go big on the sour oak, the vanilla and the booze—it actually manages to be 14.4% ABV without displaying a lot of residual sugar, because instead it trades in “booze complexity.” Molasses and toffee caramelization meets with lots of dried fruit (raisin, prune), and the only thing that keeps it from the very top of the mountain is the fact that some tasters couldn’t quite overcome the booze. Regardless, Bourbon County Barleywine will remain an important example of the style, and it will appeal most to drinkers who want to go all-in on the whiskey side of the spectrum.
14. Midnight Sun Brewing Co. Arctic Devil
City: Anchorage, AK
The verdict: The second of our barleywines from Alaska’s Midnight Sun is an English rather than “Belgian barleywine,” and it’s quite a lovely one at that. This beer’s barrel aging has pulled a very distinctly “maple” note throughout that permeates everything and works very well—it’s like maple brown sugar oatmeal with berry preserves mixed in. “Sweet berries and booze,” reads one tasting sheet. “Nice balance, lovely brandy and caramel character” says another. “Great vanilla notes dance throughout” says a third. It’s an excellent expression of classical English barleywine that is then gussied (and boozed) up with a typically American twist. Any brewery would be proud to have this as a winter special release.
13. Jackie O’s Cellar Cuvee 11
City: Athens, OH
The verdict: There are few breweries with a better track record in Paste blind tastings of barrel-aged beer styles than Jackie O’s, so just about anything they send in has to be considered a contender. This one reminds us a little bit of Spirit Beast, the cuvee blend of numerous big stouts that was our #2 barrel-aged imperial stout back in January, but it’s probably a little bit more approachable. Well-balanced despite the presence of the bourbon barrels it was aged in, Cellar Cuvee 11 brings prominent caramel and toffee flavors, along with a hint of banana pudding and bourbon. Moderate residual sweetness sort of holds everything together, in a beer one score sheet refers to as “bourbon delight.” From another: “Doesn’t quite drink like the style, but it’s a damn tasty high-ABV potion.”
12. Wild Heaven Beer Civilization Barleywine
City: Avondale Estates, GA
The verdict: There aren’t many non-barrel-aged barleywines, once we get up to this portion of the rankings, but this was also one of the cases where we enjoyed the base version of a beer more than its tequila barrel-aged compatriot, Height of Civilization. The regular Civilization is just solid from top to bottom: Drier than many of the others, but with some modicum of sweetness, toasty malt, cherry/raspberry fruit, a bit of grassy/herbal hops and a hint of (presumably) hop-derived bitterness that is absent in most of the others, which is a nice balancing component. Just an on-point, well-balanced, archetypal version of the style.
Disclosure: Wild Heaven was founded by the former co-founder and original publisher of Paste, and is only a few blocks from the primary Paste office in Avondale Estates, GA.
11. Fort George Brewery 10th Anniversary Barleywine
City: Astoria, OR
The verdict: This is easily one of the most unique barleywines in the tasting, an experiment that more than paid off for Fort George’s 10th anniversary celebration. There were very few wine barrel-aged barleywines in general in this tasting, and after sampling this one, we can’t help but wonder why. Sweet and boozy on first pass, with notes of maple sugar, raisin and black fruit, it all seems archetypal enough—and then the hops hit you. We had a good number of hop-forward American barleywines in this tasting, but almost none of them that actually managed to combine big hop flavors (mostly citrus/grassy) with a barrel-aged profile and make the whole thing make sense. This one pulls off that unusual combination in a way that is genuinely exciting and coherent. Days later, it’s one of the entries that has most clearly stayed in my memory.
10. The Veil Brewing Co. Circle of Wolves (Apple Brandy Barrel)
City: Richmond, VA
The verdict: Like its bourbon barrel-aged variant earlier on this list, the base beer of Circle of Wolves straddles the line between English barleywine and imperial stout, in a way that is questionable (for the style) but undeniably delicious. This one is aged in apple brandy barrels, and comes out of said barrels toned down a bit on the “fudgy” impressions we described earlier, with perhaps a bit more of the “barleywine” side intact. Instead, it picks up a bit more oak and some “barrel spice” of sorts—one score sheet describes the beer as “very smooth and roasty, with hints of cinnamon-like spice.” Another goes so far as to just call it “the best spicy barleywine,” so there you go. Like the other version, it hides its 12.8% ABV in a way that is especially impressive, once the bottle is revealed. With these two beers, The Veil has done a good job of pulling some of the more subtle aspects of barrel aging out of the wood.
9. COOP Ale Works Territorial Reserve Wheatwine
City: Oklahoma City, OK
The verdict: I expect you’d probably have a difficult time finding many craft beer fans who say they prefer wheatwine to barleywine, but we did manage to find a few outstanding examples of the style in the course of this tasting. This entry from OKC’s COOP also has the distinction of being aged in both red wine and bourbon barrels, an interesting combination that imbue it with noticeably more tartness than most of the other examples. From one score sheet: “Old school toffee and caramel, with sherry-like booze, and grapey/winey character.” From another: “Somewhat tart and wine-like, red wine barrel?” A little bit on the wild side, it combines some biscuity malt character with hints of barnyard/brettanomyces-like funkiness, but wraps the whole thing together moderate sweetness and booze. Definitely one of the more unique beers in the top 10.
8. El Segundo Brewing Co. Barrel-Aged Old Jetty
City: El Segundo, CA
The verdict: This is the kind of beer you’d imagine in your mind’s eye when someone says “barrel-aged barleywine.” A classic example of American bourbon barrel aging, this burly beer from El Segundo checks all of the boxes: Molasses-like richness and slightly syrupy texture are complemented by big vanilla/plum notes and swelling waves of booze. Deep, toasty maltiness is present, and although it’s very rich, it’s not necessarily overtly “sugary.” It is, however, very booze-forward, with plenty of oak as well—no missing the origin of the barrel on this one. It reminds one of nothing so much as a more balanced variation upon Goose Island’s Bourbon County Barleywine, and that’s a pretty good thing to be.
7. Breakside Brewery Old Lord Chubby Cheeks
City: Portland, OR
The verdict: There’s a lot going on in this Breakside beer, and it’s a bit tough to pin down. Aged in rye whiskey barrels, it presents less “bourbony” as a result, with more barrel elements that remind one of dessert wines, such as the nuttiness of good sherry. Dark fruit (plum, cherry) notes and a slightly slick texture are complemented by hints of hops and bready malt. A bit drier than one might expect, it drinks fairly easily for the 11.7% ABV, a product of barrel aging that is considerably more subtle than the average here. It’s a good reminder that although barrel-aged beers did tend to dominate the top of the rankings in this style, the styles and execution of barrel-aging among the top 10 vary considerably.
6. Perennial Artisan Ales Vermilion
City: St. Louis, MO
The verdict: This is the highest-ranking non-barrel-aged barleywine on the list, so kudos to Perennial for that particular distinction—they were going up against some monsters here. With that said, Vermilion is a pretty damn big beer itself, although one with a wonderfully smooth texture and chewy mouthfeel. This English barleywine brings the dark fruit in spades, with big, assertive flavors of plum, raisin and macerated berries, but it also coaxes out some kind of unusual spice not as well—it reminded me of nothing so much as the dark fruitiness you get from dried peppers such as ancho chiles. That addition, along with the dark color, almost makes this beer evoke other styles such as Belgian quad, but ultimately it’s in a class by itself. That kind of complexity is what helps individual beers rise above the crowd.
5. Saint Arnold Brewing Co. Bishop’s Barrel 18
City: Houston, TX
The verdict: A previous entry in Saint Arnold’s Bishop’s Barrel series (#13) finished in the top 5 of our blind tasting of Belgian quads, so it seems almost fitting that #18 again ends up in this position during barleywine. Suffice to say, the folks at Saint Arnold know their way around huge barrel-aged beers, which is something we’ve known for quite a while now. This one is actually a little bit less bombastic in comparison to some of the other BA monsters, succeeding primarily as a balancing act. Big caramel and moderate bourbon notes of vanilla custard and charred oak are supported by sugar-rich dried fruit. “Wonderful nose, like toffee beer candy” reads the notes from one tasting sheet. Most breweries wish they could produce a barrel-aged 12.8% ABV beer that would be this friendly and approachable.
4. Fremont Brewing Co. Batch 2,000
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: There’s no other brewery in the United States we’ve praised so consistently and so vociferously for their barrel-aged beer than Fremont, and it would appear this isn’t about to stop now. These guys just get it, period, full stop. Every barrel-aged beer they make nails a perfect balance between huge, expressive flavors, balance and irresistable textures. Here, for the brewery’s 2,000th batch, they celebrated with a decadent bourbon barrel barleywine. Here’s one scoresheet in full: “Huge, sweet and boozy, with figgy and jammy flavors—maple too. Intense, but great in small doses. Very decadent, in a good way.” From another score sheet: “We have a winner here, beautiful nose of toffee and dark fruit.” And as in other barrel-aged Fremont beers, it’s the texture that really puts it over the edge—thick, luscious and velvety soft. This is very much a dessert beer, but damn, it’s a good one.
3. Sebago Brewing Co. BBA Barleywine
City: Gorham, ME
The verdict: In barrel-aged beer, it’s not about being the biggest, or the boldest, or the most adventurous—it’s about being the most complete, and that’s what this bourbon barrel-aged barleywine from Maine’s Sebago Brewing Co. is all about. This beer manages to bring the big, assertive flavors and hold them all in harmony with one another—boozy without being harsh, sweet without being cloying and intense without losing drinkability. From one score sheet: “Creamy and smooth, with well-integrated booze and vanilla pudding notes; soft and approachable.” From another: “Full bodied, big malt and booze with toasted nuts and caramel.” From still another: “Each time you revisit this beer, it’s improved.” And in a blind tasting format like this one, there’s no surer mark of a good beer than that.
2. Brew Gentlemen III
City: Braddock, PA
The verdict: Perhaps the best thing about these blind tastings is the way they’ve raised our esteem for certain small breweries over the last three years. Braddock, Pennsylvania’s Brew Gentlemen was a place we’d never even heard of the first time they sent in beer, and now they’ve walked away with a truly ridiculous number of accolades, most recently making our #1 DIPA in a field of 176. But when the same brewery can make an equally awesome barrel-aged barleywine, that’s when you know they’ve got depth. This one is just pitched right down the middle: Rich and moderately sweet, replete with maple syrup, toffee and toasty malt, in perfect balance. The bourbon barrel character is a bit more on the subtle side compared to some of the others—as one score sheet says, “an example of nicely restrained barrel aging.” From another score sheet: “A blanket of warming caramel and booze.” It’s another slam dunk.
1. Fremont Brewing Co. Batch 1,000
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: Not one, but two different tasting sheets independently have the words “damn good” written on them about this beer, which should tell you something. Fremont took full advantage in this tasting of their freedom to submit some vintage barrel-aged barleywine, and it paid off—this first anniversary beer, the older brother to Batch 2,000, has been mellowing out since 2014. And it really IS “damn good.”
As already described in the blurb for Batch 2,000, it’s once again texture that immediately sets this bourbon barrel-aged barleywine apart—thick, luscious, chewy and creamy. From one score sheet: “Huge bourbon, vanilla, toffee and dark fruit flavors. Ridiculously rich, but somehow not too much.” From another: “Very well executed. Bold and sweet, but still well balanced.” Perhaps it’s the extra years of bottle conditioning that have helped this beer find that kind of balance, but we can’t help but imagine it’s probably been equally great from the first moment it was bottled. Fremont has obviously earned that kind of assumption from us at this point. If the style is “big barrel-aged beer,” woe to the people who have to go up against these guys—they’re just too damn good.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more craft beer/alcohol content.