by Chiara Andreola Sommelier della birra 13 November 2019
Beer, we know, is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting, most commonly, barley. Barley wine has nothing to do with grapes and is not a wine. Instead, it is known as one of the strongest beers, with an alcohol percentage as high as wine. The name cane be a little confusing, as barley wine is definitely a beer because it is made from a grain. The style earnt the name from the similarities in strength and complexity to wine. Barley wine is a delicious winter warmer, the perfect tipple for cosy evenings sat by a log fire.
What is barley wine?
Here, we will discuss English barley wines, historically however the style is related to German and Belgian versions too. The best known and published barley wines come from 18th century Great Britain although beers with similar characteristics had been produced prior to this. It can be traced back to the numerous conflicts that occurred between Britain and France at the time. The upper classes especially, rejected French wine in favour of ale. It was actually considered a patriotic duty to drink ale rather than wine due to their rivalry. French wines had been hugely popular, so to fill this demand, brewers began to make their beers even richer and more structured. To do this, they often let them mature for a long time in wine or whiskey barrels, allowing them take on some of the aromas and flavours of the previous liquid. Barley wines are some of the strongest beers; they tend to be dark or at least dark amber-coloured, due to the long boiling times used to concentrate and caramelize the sugars. Traditionally, barley wines have ABVs ranging from 8% up to 14 % or more. This percentage of alcohol is closer to that of a wine, hence the name. On this topic, barley wines are one of the few beers that age well, again like a fine wine.
In 1857, British brewers Bass & Co. produced a pale barley wine called, Bass No.1. This is the first published instance of the name barley wine. Common practice at the time was to brew by "Parti-Gyle", whereby brewers use the first runnings from the mash for strong beers like stouts and then use second and third for lighter beers. At the time, they were looking to produce a beer that would compete with the strong, French wines. They needed a robust, high ABV beer that also looked reddish in colour. Bass & Co. used the Parti-Gyle method and would name each round by the batch number it was from the runnings. Hence, why when Bass and Co. produced their first barley wine, Bass No.1, it was called such, it was the first beer bottled in round one of the mash. This was in production until 1995, it's demise can be considered the end of barley wines popularity in the UK. Having said this, it was never hugely successful in the UK due to the high demand for ale. Barley wine can be more expensive and time consuming than more mainstream beer production. Strong beers require a lot of malt in order to create enough fermentable sugars needed for the yeast to convert the alcohol. The wort for barley wine can be as much as 25% sugar!
Barley wine beer: the details
All the beers of this style share a rich malty aroma, with notes of caramel and toffee; and lots even show flavuor of whiskey, port or sherry. Especially in the very aged ones! However even though there are requirements or “rules” for producing a barley wine, it is also a very varied style. Sometimes you can add tones from fruit spirits or dried fruit, biscuit or toasted flavours. Even though hops are present in the ingredients, they are never particularly prominent, it is more to balance out the sweetness. The body of a barley wine also tends to be very rich, with flavours that mirror the smell. In the mouth it is full bodied and warm, often with some alcoholic notes - after all barley wine can be quite alcoholic. They are distinguishable by a certain viscosity; they then leave a sweet but never cloying mouthfeel. The sugar content is balanced by the hops.
For those tasting it for the first time, barley wine does not look like conventional beer. The stronger versions especially are far more reminiscent of whiskey - after all it should be remembered that whiskey is a close relative of beer, being a distillate of barley. However, unlike whiskeys, it is not recommended to drink it with ice. This beer is best appreciated at a temperature of 14-15 degrees. Although many recommend drinking it on its own as a beer for winding down or relaxing, in order to be able to best capture its complexity, you should pair it. The most interesting combinations can be made with puddings that contain dried fruit or spices and cheese. For a savoury combination go for an aged old cheese and for sweet, it's excellent with biscotti, ginger cake, classic winter fruitcake and dark chocolate.