Cascading down microbrew enthusiasts' emergency phone trees everywhere is terrible news. Terrible news. One of the most beloved and anticipated American craft beer events, the annual Barley Wine Festival—held for over 20 years in San Francisco at the Toronado, one of the most significant craft beer bars in the United States—is no more. Not only is this year's bash cancelled, but all futures dates, too.
Perhaps San Francisco Beer Week, which now hosts over 700 beer gatherings during the 10 days surrounding the aforementioned Barley Wine Festival, spread the crowd too thin. Or, maybe there's a bigger issue at hand. Could it be that with all the newer extreme beers, like the double IPAs and barrel-aged Russian imperial stouts flooding the market, barley wine is simply out of style?
... barley wines are meant to be sipped slowly, like a liqueur.
Barley wine (sometimes spelled barleywine) is the OG of high octane beers and, all beer trends aside, actually has quite a cult following. First appearing in England around the 19th century, barley wine has always been the strongest of the English ales, usually falling within 8 to 14 percent alcohol by volume. Because of this intensity, barley wines are meant to be sipped slowly, like a liqueur.
While typical barley wines display flavors of dried fruit, coffee and chocolate—and exhibit an intense mouthfeel and warm alcohol presence—the category is spit between two styles: English and American. English barley wines often taste more malty and balanced, while American barley wines, as is typical of American craft in general, tend to be well-hopped.
Thanks to their high alcohol content and big flavor, barley wines benefit from barrel-aging. Resting these beers in casks—which was a common practice in Old England an continues today—helps mellow out their intensity, meanwhile tannins from the wooden barrels can impart dryness. However, barley wines also benefit simply from the passage of time, which helps to round out these ales, just as it does for wine.
Since beer fans can't go to the Toronado to get their barley wine fix this year, here are five great bottles to try at home.
5 Barley wines to try:
Old Knucklehead No. 016
BridgePort Brewing, Portland, OR
Brewed every year since 1989, this ruby-colored 9.2 percent ABV barley wine ale is aged with oak and delivers major malt sweetness right up front. Old Knucklehead is a limited edition brew that carries aromatics of vanilla, toffee, cherries, and oak, followed by dark fruit, rum raisins, and wafts of oak on the palate. Definitely hoppy at 60 international bitterness units, this beer finishes nice and balanced, with some heat in the chest.
Great Divide Brewing Co., Denver, CO
This Colorado brewery has created the perfect après-ski beer: a big and bold 10 percent ABV American style barley wine. With huge fruity notes of juicy ripe plums and tart pomegranates, Old Ruffian settles into delicious flavors reminiscent of a boozy fruitcake. Piney and citrus hops balance the caramel-malty sweetness and cleans up the finish of this full-bodied winter warmer.
Barrel-Aged Bigfoot Ale, 2015
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, CA
Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale is released each winter. Its huge flavors have won a cult following among barley wine drinkers, with some patrons hoarding past releases for years in order to have a one-time vertical tasting. For the brewery's 30th anniversary, Sierra Nevada doubled down and aged Bigfoot in oak whiskey barrels, creating an incredibly complex and woody ale with notes of vanilla, coconuts and old world fruit. This beer comes in at a whopping 11.9 percent ABV and 90 IBUs.
Upland Brewing Co., Bloomington, IN
This caramelly, biscuity, and toasty English barley wine style ale pours a deep copper and channels aromatics of figs and dates plus notes of vanilla, coconut, and bourbon. And that bourbon definitely comes from the beer's aging process which took place in Willett Distilling Company oak whiskey barrels. At 9.5 percent ABV, Barrel Chested could be cloying, but the hops balance and dry the beer's creamy viscosity, giving it a sweet and hefty, yet complex finish.
Harvest Ale 2015
J.W. Lees & Co., Manchester, United Kingdom
Some in the beer world say that this is the best English barley wine in the world. Others disagree, of course. Regardless, Harvest Ale, a limited edition vintage barley wine, has been brewed only once a year for the past 29 years. 2015's huge 11.5 percent ABV version of this legendary ale pours a deep, rich mahogany, with molasses on the nose. Expect flavors of toffee and sherry on the lingering finish.