Beer and wine have been competing for, well, ages. It’s a friendly rivalry, but a rivalry just the same, going back centuries. But it’s a rivalry that’s been useful far beyond quibbling about the relative merits of either drink. No, this is a rivalry that sparked a beer style.

The terms “barley wine” or “malt wine” have been seen in documents going back to the 18th century.  Back in those days, beer and wine weren’t consumed for pleasure as much as they were considered basic foodstuffs (and at the time, they were far safer than water).  Wine had become fairly well respected, and brewers wanted to gain the same respect.

Why Call a Beer a Wine?

Wine was generally considered strong, safe and nutritious.  Everyone drank wine. Not surprisingly, brewers wanted to make a beer that could compete (or maybe just ride the coattails of the popular drink), but the yeasts in beer simply tend to stop working long before that alcohol level can be reached.

The problem for English brewers at that time was the most common brewing practice. They generally used a process called parti-gyle brewing, with two or more beers being created from a single mash.  The grain would be crushed, loaded into the mash tun and liquid added, and then the appropriate amount of time later, the liquid would be drained.  Fresh liquid would then be added to the grain, and the process repeated, but each use of the mash would result in a weaker beer.  (Think of re-using coffee grounds.)  The first “batch,” or strong beer, was considered the good stuff.

Somewhere along the way, brewers discovered that “walking” their casks of fermenting beer around the brewery floor would keep the yeast active, resulting in a higher alcohol content.  With a little ingenuity, brewers could create beers with alcohol contents ranging from 9% to 12%, making the comparison to wine a reality.

Barley Wine Goes Commercial

Strong beers that could fit into the style classification of barley wines were brewed through the years, but the term largely fell out of use.  Then, in 1903, Bass launched the first beer commercially marketed as a barley wine, called Bass No. 1 Barley Wine.  Although a number of other brewers also released barley wines, the style faded in popularity, and is only a small share of beer brewed today.

Barley wines are brewed in the United States, but under U.S. law, wine is a designation that is only allowed on beverages fermented from fruit, not grain.  Because of these labeling laws, these beers must be called “barley wine-style ales” instead of the traditional “barley wine.” Don’t let the variation in the name confuse you. This is the barley wine you’re looking for.

Barley Wine Style Characteristics

The Beer Judge Certification Program recognizes two styles of barley wine – English Barleywine and American Barleywine.  The two styles are very similar.

Barley wines are rich and full-bodied, with very malty aroma and flavor.  The color can vary from from a light amber to a copper or brown, but should not be opaque.  Barley wine can be a hoppy beer, with the American style placing more emphasis on the hop character.  Generally, English barley wines are darker, maltier, and fruitier than the American version.

When to break out the barley wine

Barley wine is a high alcohol beer full of intense flavor, so while an enthusiast might say “any time is good,” others might want to take a different approach. This isn’t a beer that lends itself easily to slamming down a six-pack while watching a ball game.

Instead, take advantage of barley wine’s inherent richness. It can pair well with many winter roasts or stews, which have robust flavors that can hold their own. Barley wine also pairs well with strongly flavored cheese like Stilton or bleu cheese, so go elegant with a platter of goodies like cheeses, salami, figs and kalamata olives or go casual with spicy Buffalo wings and bleu cheese dip. Or if you favor dessert, pair barley wine with a sweet and creamy creme brulee or a rich chocolate torte.

Beers to try: Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Olde School Barleywine by Dogfish Head, Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale