The Barley Wine Primer
February 19, 2004
I spent Valentine’s weekend in Cambridge, Massachusetts with Mrs. Securb, lodging at a hotel nestled halfway between M.I.T. and Harvard University. It was great to see all of the rocket scientists, brain surgeons and politicians of the next generation bustling around the city. I could be standing next to the next Bill Gates, Janet Reno or maybe even the next Tommy Lee Jones. I guess you need a Harvard education to chase Harrison Ford down a storm drain or to paint half your face red and chase around Val Kilmer in a latex suit.
During one of my forays into the streets, I wandered into a beer store to see what offerings they had. My mind and heart were so full of optimism for the next generation. Unfortunately when I looked around I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs “what are you a bunch of morons?” I was staring at the next leaders of the free world lined up waiting to purchase their 12 packs of budget american lagers! Don’t they teach mathematics and economics at MIT and Harvard? I‘m standing in front of a beer chest that is packed with the brand new 2004 Bigfoot barley wine and Brooklyn Monster barley wine and these “rocket scientists” are walking out of the store with 12 packs of swill.
I know what you are going to say. “Come on Securb, don’t be hard on them, they are college students that don’t have a lot of cash.” or “They are kids they are drinking for the buzz not the taste.” Even more reason to drink better beer! Lets do the math… 12 beers x 12 ounces @ 4.2% would be equal in alcohol by volume to a 6 pack of 8.4% beers. These brain surgeons were paying eight to nine dollars for 12 packs of yellow, watery swill when they could have picked up a delicious six-pack of 10% barley wine for the same money or less. The next generation is screwed! We have MIT and Harvard students that can’t do 6th grade math.
We’ve been covering a lot of winter beers the past few weeks and the one question that I keep getting from most of you is, “What the hell are barley wines?” The easy answer is that they are the most powerful beers in the world. The term was coined in the late 1800s by English brewers who coined it to describe their most powerful brews. When compared to most beers, it takes more ingredients to produce barley wine. It is assumed that the brewers wanted to give their beers a name that would give these more expensive ales an air of regency. So basically, it was a marketing ploy. Marketing ploy and beer? What a shocker! It makes me wonder if they had a set of hot twins promoting the first batch of barley wine or a bull terrier lounging by a pool with a throng of beautiful women.
Let’s get rid of some of the common misconceptions about this style of beer. Barley wine is not wine, but some can have characteristics similar to wines, especially sherries and ports. They are sometimes fermented with wine or champagne yeast. Champagne yeast has enough strength to eat up all of that delicious sugar, therefore producing delicious alcohol. When you buy a bottle of barley wine it will say “Barley Wine Style Ale.” Beer conspiracy theorists think that the powers-that-be would not let this style of beer simply be called “barley wine” for fear that it would confuse consumers. We have Ice beers, Stouts, Bocks, Double Bocks, Lagers and Ales, to name a few styles, and they thought the term barley wine would confuse us? Too little, too late. Most of Harvard and MIT are pretty confused already.
The first barley wine I had was over 5 years ago. It was syrupy, overly sweet and did not have enough hops to balance all of the sugar and malt extract needed to get the brew to the big beer state. I put down the beer and decided I didn’t like barley wines, not touching another one for a good two years afterward. My huge mistake was basing a beer style on just one beer. Years later, and with some more sampling and experimentation, barley wines are now among my favorite beers.
Each brewery has their own techniques to get a barley wine to the big beer state, so the beers in this style tend to be very different. We talked about Sam Adams Utopia MMIII recently. This beer is officially called a “barley wine style ale” I do not wholly agree with this but I don’t think there is any other way to categorize this brandy-like cordial that is fermented with maple syrup and caramel. I stress again, don’t stop at the first beer of any style you don’t like, every brewery has different offerings. To this day I am still pouring lambics down the drain trying to find one I like. But that is a story for a different column.
Here are my barley wine picks for you rocket scientists out there.
Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barley Wine Style Ale vin 2004 – OK this beer made it into my column two weeks in a row. It is simply that damn good. I have been waiting almost a year for this beer to be released and finally got to sample the 2004 last night. This is truly one of the best beers on the planet. To recap the review of the 2003: Once again, cascade hops lend their signature piney, citrus aroma while the centennial hops lend very earthy tones. The citrus flavors balance the sweetness of the barley wine perfectly and the 9.6% ABV is very well hidden in this brew, so it doesn’t give you an overwhelming alcohol taste.
Commercial Description: Bigfoot Ale is an award-winning example of the traditional barley wine ale style. It boasts a dense, fruity bouquet; an extremely rich, intense palate; and a deep, reddish-brown color. This ale is superbly balanced between an almost overpowering maltiness and a wonderfully bittersweet hopiness.
Rogue Ales’ Old Crustacean Barley Wine Style Ale – This barley wine is a bit more syrupy than I tend to like (it may be perfect for you) but the flavor of this beer gets you past it along with it’s 10.5% ABV. This is a very intense, malty brew. From what I could find in doing research on this beer it is readably available year-round unlike its counterparts from other brewers which are primarily only brewed in the winter.
Commercial Description: In Britain, seasonal brews for winter are high in alcohol, robust, malty, and dark. The two main styles of these brews are Old Ales and Barleywines. As the name suggests, barleywines are similar to wines in alcohol and need aging but are derived from grain, not the grape. Old Crustacean is brewed with eight ingredients, Great Western Harrington, Klages, Hugh Baird Carastan and Munich Malts, Chinook and Centennial Hops, free-range coastal water and PacMan yeast. Old Crustacean is best when aged for one year.
Brooklyn Breweries Monster Barley Wine Style Ale vin. 2004 – These guys at Brooklyn never fail to amaze me. This monster ale is very smooth on the palette with no syrupy after tones. “Monster” has a beautiful dark-red color and malty flavor.
Commercial Description: Brooklyn Monster Ale, our dead-of-winter seasonal, is an English style barley wine. Barley wines are beers fermented to the strength of wines, usually around 10% alcohol by volume. The high alcohol produces intensely estery flavors, giving the beers a vinous, or sherry-like character. Deep mahogany in color, Monster is cellared for three months, and unfiltered. Monster’s aroma is redolent of sherry and hops. The palate is fruity and citrusy, and the finish is warming. Availability: November-February very limited quantities in 12-oz
My number one pick for the politicians, rocket scientists and brain surgeons of tomorrow:
Stone Brewing Old Guardian Barley Wine Style Ale vin. 2004 – Stone changed the recipe for their barley wine this year. Yet again another reason to cellar beers… the 2003s just became a little more rare. The 2004 has the same great over-the-top hoppiness as previous years along with some great earthy flavors coming from what I can only guess is a generous helping of centennial hops added to this brew. There is also a ton of different fruit flavors and citrus notes coming out.
Commercial Announcement: There are a few threads of consistency between the 2004 edition and previous years’ editions. To name a few: the massive, right-around-10% avg, the ferocious malt / hop interplay, the rambling text on the back of the bottle which there is little reason to attempt to read (and thankfully few do), and the familiarly handsome red and gold graphics presenting the famous Stone Brewing gargoyle.