Join Date: Jul 2004
As the person who sent this to me noted - "This is a little long..."
Barley Wines are definitely an acquired taste, and this article does a nice job explaining what's involved in the genaerally accepted strongest style of beer in the world... (Yep, beer, not wine)
From the NYTimes:
January 25, 2006
Wines of The Times
A Visitor Welcomed in Cold Weather
By ERIC ASIMOV
PEOPLE who love cold weather appreciate it not just for the skiing, the ice
fishing or the joy of having their eyelashes turn brittle enough to break in
the winter chill. No, they love it because when the insanity is over,
getting warm feels so gloriously wonderful.
That is the moment for a cozy fire, woolen socks and a favorite robe; for
Tolstoy, not a tell-all; for nutritious resonance rather than fleeting
charm. And it is the time for barley wine, the robust, complex brewed
counterpart to Port, Madeira or Armagnac.
That's right, brewed. Barley wine is not a wine at all but a beer, or to be
geekishly precise, a top-fermented ale of exceptional strength, power and
length. Barley wines are not for chugging after a workout. They are not
refreshing but thought-provoking, sip by contemplative sip. Many even
benefit from cellaring, most for a year or two, but some for a decade or
more. Barley wines are sometimes dated with the brewing equivalent of the
vintage year, and, even more so than wine, vintages can be entirely
I like to think of Bilbo Baggins, comfortable and secure in his paneled
Hobbit hole, with a cupboard full of seedcakes and a mug of barley wine.
Hobbits? Well, it's my own flight of fancy and not meant at all to minimize
the assertive power of barley wines, which after all are as British as the
folklore that inspired Tolkien. As Garrett Oliver writes in his essential
book, "The Brewmaster's Table" (HarperCollins, 2003): "In the early 1700's
the emergence in England of a wealthy merchant class, the development of
pale malts, and a more scientific approach to the brewing process gave rise
to ales that rivaled the finest wines in their finesse, complexity and
strength. These beers were not for the masses, but for the aristocracy, who
had grown tired of having their wine supplies cut off by pesky wars with
While their heritage may be British, barley wines have now inspired two
generations of American craft brewers, who have taken on the style as a
special challenge and an opportunity at personal expression. No beer tests a
brewer's skill so much as barley wine. It requires a prolonged fermentation,
and the brewer must cajole the yeast, which transforms sugar into alcohol,
with as much care and precision as a jockey guides a thoroughbred through a
crowded field to victory. The result is a strong brew, 9 or 10 percent
alcohol at a minimum, as against a typical beer's 5 percent. Many American
brewers aim even bigger, naturally, up to 15 percent, while staying true to
the complex, evocative spirit of barley wine.
Not content to leave it to the aristocrats or even the Hobbits, the Dining
section's tasting panel recently sampled 25 barley wines - 20 from the
United States, four from Britain, and one version, quite good, from the
Netherlands. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Mr.
Oliver, who is also the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, and Phil Markowski,
the brewmaster at the Southampton Publick House, a restaurant and brewery in
I was mightily impressed by the entire field. These ales were superbly
brewed, and the range of styles was fascinating. Some - the British versions
in particular - were sweet and creamy, yet not cloying, their complexity
offering enough intrigue to keep me coming back for more. The American ales
tended to be dryer, more robust and spicy, with heavy doses of American
hops, which offer piney aromas and a pleasing bitterness, although if there
was one flaw, as Mr. Oliver pointed out, some of the ales were a little too
And then there are ales that fit into no category but their own. Thomas
Hardy's Ale is one such unique brew. This is perhaps the most famous name in
barley wine, yet it is a surprisingly recent invention. The first Thomas
Hardy's Ale was brewed in 1968 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the
author's death. It became a collector's ale, with bottles going for hundreds
of dollars in auctions, and was brewed annually until 1999, when the Thomas
Hardy Brewery ceased production, citing its high expense. After a hiatus,
O'Hanlon's Brewing Company of Devon, England, purchased the brand and began
brewing Hardy's Ale again in 2003, according to the original recipe.
The panel sampled, blind, the 2004 Hardy's Ale, and found it to be both
bewitching and puzzling. The amber-brown ale was surprisingly low in
carbonation, but rich in body, with sweet fruit and chocolate aromas. Mr.
Markowski and Mr. Oliver both identified it right away as an Old World
entry, and Mr. Oliver compared it to a Pedro Ximénez , the luscious ultimate
in sweet sherry.
After the tasting, Mr. Oliver remarked on how youthful the Hardy's was, and
as a point of comparison he pulled out a bottle of 1992 Hardy's, which he
happened to have brought along. Now this was something special. The brew was
lighter in color, less sweet and more carbonated - the remaining sugar
ferments over time, releasing carbon dioxide, making the ale stronger - and
subtle, with flavors of caramel, fruit and earth, and a bitterness that
lingered in the mouth. If the 2004 evolves like this, anybody who saves a
few bottles will be in for a real treat in 10 years or so.
It's hard to imagine the American barley wines undergoing such a
transformation, yet they were no less compelling. Our top-rated ale, Hog
Heaven, from the Avery Brewing Company, epitomized the American style, with
spicy, potent flavors and a piney bitterness that endured in the mouth. The
No. 2 ale, Horn Dog from Flying Dog, was an entirely different sort of brew,
soft, rich and almost tranquilizing, reminiscent of caramelized nuts.
Incidentally, many barley wines come equipped with gnarly sorts of names,
like Horn Dog, Old Numbskull, Bigfoot, Blithering Idiot and even Old Howling
Bastard. Perhaps they see Hobbits as a target audience, but one thing is
"Obviously, these aren't being marketed for women," Ms. Fabricant noted.
The fraternity of brewers might well consider whether they are missing out
on a significant market. Who wouldn't like Anchor's Old Foghorn, one of the
first American barley wines, with its bright, balanced flavors, or even the
entry from the Netherlands, the Nieuw Ligt Grand Cru 2003, from De Hemel, a
complex, unusual brew in which Ms. Fabricant found an intriguing bitter
The quality in general was so high that we could not possibly include all
the ales we liked in our top 10. Not to be forgotten are ales like Dogfish
Head's Old School, which managed to mask its 15 percent alcohol behind
fruitcake flavors; Young's Old Nick, a creamy-rich British classic that is a
mere 7.2 percent; and Mr. Oliver's own Brooklyn Monster Ale, another creamy,
For once in our beer tastings, we found that mishandling during shipping or
storage was not an issue - all the brews were in relatively good shape.
Perhaps this is because the barley wines are sturdy enough to withstand wide
swings in temperature or that they are only shipped in cool weather, and
temperature is not an issue.
One thing that may be an issue is the name, barley wine. Apparently the
government believes that the American people would find the term puzzling,
and so the government requires labels to call barley wine "barley wine-style
ale." What the phrase lacks in elegance it makes up for in confusion. Come
to think of it, I'll take Old Numbskull anytime.
Tasting Report: Stoke Up the Fire and Pull on Those Cozy Socks
Avery Brewing Company Hog Heaven; Boulder, Colo.
22 ounces, $5
Fresh, spicy, balanced and deeply aromatic; quintessential American-style
ale with plenty of hops.
Flying Dog Horn Dog; Denver
12 ounces, $2.25
Rich, soft, thick and delicious; a complex, sherry-like sipping ale.
Anchor Brewing Old Foghorn; San Francisco
12 ounces, $3.25
Big, bright and balanced with toasty herbal aromas.
J. W. Lees Harvest Ale 2003; Manchester, England
9.3 ounces, $5.25
Quite sweet yet well balanced, with a creamy texture and exotic fruit
aromas. (Importer: B. United International, Redding, Conn.)
Southampton Publick House Old Herb 2003; Southampton, N.Y.
12 ounces, $6
Aromas of leather and molasses; perfect with an armchair, old books and a
Thomas Hardy's Ale 2004, O'Hanlon's Brewing Company; Devon, England
8.5 ounces, $6
Unique, with low carbonation, complex malt and chocolate aromas and fruit
flavors; should develop for years. (Phoenix Imports, Baltimore)
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale 2005; Chico, Calif.
12 ounces, $1.75
Rich, with fruit and herbal aromas and a pleasing bitterness.
De Hemel Nieuw Ligt Grand Cru 2003; Netherlands
330 milliliters, $10
Complex, dry and intriguing in an idiosyncratic way. (Shelton Brothers,
AleSmith Old Numbskull; San Diego, Calif.
25.4 ounces, $10
Toasty malt flavors are almost like milk chocolate; subtle and pleasing.
Victory Brewing Company Old Horizontal; Downingtown, Pa.
12 ounces, $1.75
Creamy, rich texture; clean and balanced with lingering flavors.