Veering away from the world of liquor and cocktails for a moment, a few evenings ago Shanna and I found ourselves perusing the recently appended beer section of our local Giant Eagle supermarket. These have been popping up in Giant Eagles lately, along with the much maligned wine vending machines. This is a significant step forward in Pennsylvania’s restrictive liquor laws, which have remained largely unchanged since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. But that’s a subject for another article.
The salient point here is that the few Giant Eagles that are now able to sell six-packs and single bottles of beer actually have a better selection than many traditional distributors. Unlike a distributor, Giant Eagle doesn’t have to invest in several cases of a product, which means they can risk offering micro brewed and niche beers that lack the wide appeal of more traditional brews. Thus Shanna and I were presented with our first opportunity to purchase barley wines.
Barley wine (also correct: barleywine, barleywine ale) is a particular style of beer which is generally only offered by smaller scale artisanal breweries. All beer is brewed from malted barley (with wheat beers brewed from a blend of barley and wheat), but the defining characteristic of barley wine is its high alcohol content. Most beer has an alcohol content of around 4-6% ABV. India Pale Ales generally sit at the higher end of that spectrum with 6-7% ABV. Barley wines, however, can range from 8-12% ABV. This puts them closer to the ABV range of most wines, hence the name.
This being our first experience with barley wine, Shanna and I chose two different brands so that we could compare the two. This, we hoped, would help us to distinguish which characteristics were unique to a specific brand and which were common to barley wines in general. We picked up a Smuttynose Barleywine Ale along with the robustly named Southern Tier Back Burner Imperial Barley Wine Style Ale. Both of these came in 22oz bottles; significantly larger than a traditional 12oz beer bottle, but not quite as large as a 750mL (or 25.4oz) standard wine bottle. Keeping in mind barley wine’s high alcohol content, one of these bottles is the perfect size to split between two people.
In the course of our tasting, what struck Shanna and I the most was the fact that barley wines in general don’t taste much different at all from other beers. In fact, the only marked difference is the extra alcohol content, which doesn’t present itself in the flavor of the barley wine the way it will in a liquor. This certainly plays a role in beer writer and historian Martyn Cornell’s assertion that barley wine, as a category of beer, is meaningless. On this point I’m not sure I agree with him, but it is easy to see his point.
The Smuttynose (10% ABV) we found to be fairly light in color and predominated by a hoppy flavor. In a blind test I would have confidently called it an IPA. When tasting, the hops hit the tongue sharply right away. They’re then joined by a smooth malt flavor. Unlike an IPA where the hops tend to overpower the malt entirely, here the two grains almost sit side by side on the palette. These two flavors step aside to allow a fruitiness to dominate the body, which transitions into a long, lingering finish which Shanna identifies with a toffee flavor. The burn of the hops underlines the whole experience until it’s the last flavor left on your tongue. Pairs well with hard salty cheeses like Manchego or Romano, and mild sweet fruits like pear.
If the Smuttynose is akin to an IPA, the Southern Tier (9.6% ABV) is more of a stout. Hops here are only barely perceptible, while dark roasted barley gives this barley wine a heavy, meaty flavor. If there is any flavor element that distinguishes barley wines from other beers, judging by these two examples it’s probably that the malt has a smoother, almost creamy character to it. Perhaps it was the influence of the first bottle, but this second selection didn’t seem to have quite as much complexity to it. The finish was short, and a bit bitter, but as far as stouts go, this barley wine holds its own. The roasted barley flavor wasn’t nearly as abrasive as some stouts can be. This paired well with more flavorful fruits like peaches, and though Shanna and I don’t eat beef I can see this going very nicely with a steak grilled medium rare.
By the time Shanna and I had finished off the two bottles we were, as Hemmingway would have deemed, good and tight. In the interest of science and thorough investigation we deemed it necessary to sample the two back-to-back. For casual enjoyment, however, I would not recommend more than one bottle for every two drinkers. An important part of boozehoundery is remembering to drink for appreciation, not intoxication.
So if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in a situation where you’re contemplating sampling a barley wine, remember to read labels. The flavors you’re likely to encounter are as varied as any brew on the shelf. But since barley wines are generally only offered by small breweries, that are passionate about their product and flavors, you’re almost guaranteed to pick up a quality drink.
If you have a favorite brand of barley wine, we’d like to know about it. Drop us a comment and let us know what you like, and how you prefer to enjoy it.