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Barley Wine - A State of Mind

by Stephen Snyder

At the Pike Brewery in Seattle, the annual brewing of the barley wine is a communal event where everyone joyously takes part. As brewers dressed in Santa Claus hats mill around the mash tun in the middle of August, the newest edition of Old Bawdy is born amid piped-in Christmas music. Old Bawdy is crafted for pride, not profit, and as an expression of the brewer's art. This is the essence of what makes barley wine special.

In most breweries barley wine isn't a beer for mass consumption. Sometimes it's not for the public at all, but for the brewery's own employees as a winter gift. Brewed in small quantities, slowly aged and bottled in small "nips," its rarity, like gold, makes barley wine precious. Likewise, amateur brewers who desire to brew for something more than their everyday needs can turn to this special beer made of the finest ingredients, carefully crafted, lovingly cared for and patiently awaited. For homebrewers, this is the beer you jealously reserve to your closest friends or for a momentous occasion.

Stylistically, barley wines possess many of the qualities of their weaker cousins, English bitter–a full, pale malt profile, rounded hop bitterness and a pronounced fruitiness. In a barley wine, however, these elements are drastically elevated and enhanced. The chewiness in body delivered by so many dextrins is married to a great depth of complexity balanced by as many as six times the normal amount of bittering hops. The higher alcohol levels produce a gentle warming effect that traditionally links these beers to the winter season.

Although barley wine as a style designation clearly originates in England, the tradition of brewing a stronger-than-normal ale from the very best barley and hops has been part of worldwide brewing culture for centuries, if not millennia. This beer was most likely named barley wine first and foremost because of an alcohol content that approached that of wine, but no doubt the name served as an indication of its above-average cost as well as its strength. Equating this brew with wine also gave it an elevated status, which it richly deserved. The term "barley wine" first appeared in early 19th century England, although Michael Jackson has pointed out the name doesn't seem to have made its way onto the labels of commercially bottled versions of these strong top-fermented beers until late in the last century or early in this one.

As Jackson and British styles expert Garrett Oliver have pointed out, especially strong ales were variously called "first sort," "October beers," "malt liquors" or "malt wine." More than likely these were synonymous with the strong, well-aged "old ales" blended in small quantities by publicans with weaker, inferior beers to improve the drinkability of "green" small or mild beers. These strong old ales also were brewed in England for the aristocratic lord of the manor by his household staff. Where money was no object these brews provided a relatively temperate counterpart to the wildly popular gins and rums of Britain's colonial era. Indeed, government leaders on both sides of the Atlantic pushed ales of this sort as drinks of moderation in an attempt to curb rising problems associated with heavy spirits consumption.

Old ales and barley wines appear to have developed into distinct and recognizable styles a century ago. Old ales now are best represented by such diverse brews as Eldridge Pope's Thomas Hardy's, Greene King's Strong Suffolk, Marston's Owd Rodger and, of course, Theakston's Old Peculier.

Barley wines have diverged into at least two more distinct categories: the dark style (Young's Old Nick) and the light golden style (Whitbread Gold Label). When Tennant's was bought out by Whitbread, this beer became Whitbread Gold Label.

You might successfully argue the case for the existence of a third American-style category exemplified by Sierra Nevada Bigfoot or Anchor Old Foghorn. These can sometimes fit into one of the English categories if you judge by color alone, but what defines American barley wines is a distinctively robust and assertive hop character that is quite different from their European counterparts.

I like to think rather broadly in terms of barley wine technical parameters, because there are many strong ales, mostly British in origin, that defy easy categorization. Several classic strong beers are too big for ESB britches, such as Gibbs Mew's The Bishop's Tipple (6.5 percent alcohol by volume), Greene King's St. Edmunds (6.3 percent alcohol by volume) or even Mendocino Brewing's Eye of the Hawk Select Ale (7.6 percent alcohol by volume). But in the interest of simplicity, original gravities starting at 1.085 perhaps are where real barley wines begin and superstrong ales end. Barley wines of lesser strength can come off as thin and lacking complexity when sampled alongside such heavyweight classics as Bass No. 1 (10.5 percent alcohol by volume) or Anchor Old Foghorn (8.7 percent alcohol by volume).

Unfortunately, the water tends to get even murkier when using alcoholic strength alone to determine what is a barley wine. Old ales can invade those limits, as do strong imperial stouts or Belgian ales. Looking at the grain bills of many of the classic barley wines we see they are similar to classic bitters and pale ales not only in ingredients–British two-row malt, English hops and pale ale yeast–but also in their simplicity. Indeed, many are simply the first runnings of a pale ale mash. As with most beerstyles, trying to nail down a hard-and-fast rule will lead you in circles. Thomas Hardy's Ale fits all the criteria for a barley wine but, because of its distinctive character as much as its need to be laid down for three to five years before drinking, it probably is best considered an old ale. The AHA national competition guidelines provide a good framework for defining and formulating barley wines.

Brewing Barley Wine

"This is where a brewer really gets to show his stuff," says Old Bawdy head brewer Fal Allen, describing the myriad problems a brewer faces when undertaking such a big brew. Choosing the right yeast, keeping the beer from being too sweet, maintaining proper fermentation temperature, maintaining proper runoff and adequate wort aeration are common brewing problems, but they are greatly amplified in brewing a barley wine.

Although barley wine is clearly a beer to test your skill as well as your patience, it is easier to design than one might think. The ingredients are simple and the brewing process is much the same as for your simplest pale ale. One of the greatest challenges might be committing to the sacrifice involved in giving up large quantities of grains that could be more thriftily put to use in two, or even three, batches of your standard-gravity beer.

Barley wines often are "parti-gyled," that is, the same mash is used for a variety of beers of successively lower gravities with the first runnings being used for the barley wine. The economy of this practice becomes obvious, because there is plenty of good wort left. You don't want to dilute the barley wine wort, which you will then have to boil down to proper gravity, and the remaining wort is too rich in fermentables to simply discard. I usually sparge until I have enough for a batch of ordinary bitter or reserve the remaining wort to make yeast starters. An old brewing practice was to remash the grains one or two times and use the subsequent runoff for different beers.

As we discussed earlier, many of the classic barley wines are brewed by the classic pale ale producers and use brewing liquor generally ranging from medium to hard and having moderate levels of temporary hardness. As with any brewing liquor, you have to make adjustments based on your water supply. Water profiles matching those of Burton or London are as well-suited for barley wine as they are for best bitter.

Traditional English hop varieties such as Kent Golding, Fuggle, Northdown, Bramling Cross and Challenger contribute an authentic replication of the rounded mellow bitterness and peppery aroma of the English classics. With bitterness levels of 50 to 70 IBUs, it's a common consensus among British brewers that these hops often can take three to five years to mellow. American-grown hops can create an almost completely different brew having a wonderfully fresh, lively hop profile. Economical high-alpha-acid hops such as Chinook, Nugget or Eroica should be reserved for bittering, while aromatic varieties of Cascade, Columbus and Willamette are best for late additions and dry-hopping. When planning your hopping schedule, remember that high-gravity worts reduce hop utilization, so don't expect the same level of bitterness per ounce of hops you'd get in a standard-gravity pale ale. Whereas commercial brewers might achieve utilizations of 35 to 40 percent using pellets in the boil of a 1.040-gravity wort, homebrewers using whole hops or old hops in a 1.110-gravity wort might achieve only 15 percent.

The Yeast Question

As with any high-gravity wort, always pitch a large quantity of yeast to begin with. At least two quarts of an actively fermenting wort starter or a quart of thick yeast slurry is a good rule of thumb for five gallons. Also remember that highly flocculant yeasts require greater aeration than less flocculant strains. Old Bawdy brewer Allen, who is writing a book on barley wine for the Brewers Publications Classic Beer Style Series, emphatically stresses that poor aeration is the biggest problem barley wine brewers face. It's impossible to get too much air into your barley wine wort, so aerate as much as you possibly can. Keep fermentation temperatures at the lower end of the yeast's recommended temperature range–for example, no higher than 65 degrees F (18 degrees C)–to avoid a disorderly fermentation and stupefying levels of higher alcohols. Keep fermentation temperature steady because highly fermentable worts are prone to rapid fermentations, which can cause yeast stress. In extreme cases this results in autolysis and the yeast's rapid demise.

Nearly all barley wine brewers, whether professional or homebrewers, use a secondary fermentation/maturation period. Traditionally this was done in oak casks, but a glass carboy or Cornelius keg do nicely. In addition to allowing the flavor profile to develop and the bittering hops to mellow over the space of several months, a period of maturation allows a lengthy period of dry-hopping, a universal part of the barley wine profile. Rates range from one to two ounces per five gallons, with Kent Golding being a favorite among English breweries and Cascade a top choice among classic American producers. Left in the secondary at cellar temperatures between 50 to 60 degrees F (10 to 16 degrees C), the barley wine should be allowed to quietly mature for one to three months before being bottled.

Unless the beer is left for an extended period of time, say a year, in the secondary, only minimal priming is necessary. This is especially true if it is to be bottle conditioned for several years. A small priming of 1/3 to 1/2 cup corn sugar per five gallons along with residual sugars and slowly fermenting dextrins will gradually bring the beer to condition. Overconditioning will obscure the complex malt flavor profile. Only if the beer has reached a very low terminal gravity and is to be consumed quickly should the normal 3/4 cup of priming sugar be used. Otherwise, you might be greeted with a geyser when opening your long-awaited barley wine to commemorate the new millennium.

In addition to its high alcohol content, another parallel barley wine has with grape wine is that, like a full-bodied cabernet, it should be allowed to breathe. For wine this is done in the bottle or decanter, while with barley wine it should be done in the glass after pouring, where it can "stretch its legs" after so many long months in the bottle.

In the United Kingdom barley wines often are served in a simple half-pint tumbler, but to enjoy the deep aromas of hops and malt try serving yours in a brandy snifter or balloon glass poured three-quarters full with a nice one-inch head. Serve between 50 and 60 degrees F (10 to 16 degrees C), depending on your preference, the barley wine in question and the time of year. Although this classic style often is considered a winter beer, one of my fondest memories of enjoying a barley wine was while sitting under a shade tree watching farmers mowing hay against a late-summer sunset. It seemed I had in a glass the essence of man's relationship to the land.

Buckeye Barley Wine

The 1997 AHA Commemorative Brew

"Mark Richmond told me to give you this," Randy Mosher said with a devilish smile as he presented a well-poured glass of this fabled nectar. I awkwardly blubbered something about how much I loved his writing and took the glass while he dissolved into the throng as serenely as he had appeared. In the glass was Richmond's Buckeye Barley Wine, brewed to commemorate the Great Lakes Homebrew Rendezvous in Cleveland in July.

The coppery-amber ale seemed luminescent even in the sobering light of a hotel conference room. The aroma was assertive–bold, minerally, massively fruity and malty with the enticing pungency of Columbus hops shouting to be recognized. The flavor was at first malty sweet and tangy, then suddenly robustly hoppy and balanced, rounding off incredibly slowly with a warming afterglow and lingering aftertastes of malt, fruit and drying hops. An impressive ale no doubt and, incredibly, or should I say dangerously, drinkable at 28 degrees Plato. The mark of a good barley wine is its ability to confound the palate as you try on each successive sip to comprehend its complex weave of flavors. Flavors that continually evolve over years or even decades. This one did so expertly, drawing me and most of the other attendees back for more in a fruitless attempt to unravel all of this beer's mysteries in one sitting.

Mark tackled the mammoth task of homebrewing 65 gallons of beer by brewing in 13 five-gallon batches after working all day in the brewery. Each batch required 20 pounds of malt donated by Liberty Malt Supply in Seattle, WA. By not using any specialty grains, Mark intended to highlight the immense depth and complexity of a classic English two-row malt. He used floor-malted Maris Otter pale from the small maltings in England and Laaglander dry malt extract donated by Homebrew Adventures in Charlotte, NC. The use of malt extract was a way not only of boosting gravity, but also of deliberately giving confidence to and saluting the many extract brewers who belong to the AHA. Each batch required nine ounces of hops, all donated by Freshops in Oregon; Columbus and Centennial in the boil for bittering, Tettnanger for aroma and Columbus again for dry-hopping. Other than Irish moss, no additives, adjuncts or specialty grains were used.

Mark used a single-temperature infusion mash with a one-hour rest at 158 degrees F (70 degrees C) to give the beer lots of dextrins for body, then sparged minimally to keep the gravity high. "I'm a great believer in simplicity," Mark says.

Each batch got one quart of Wyeast 1028 London ale slurry contributed by Great Lakes Brewing Co. He fermented at 65 degrees F (18 degrees C) in five-gallon carboys, rousing the yeast after three days to ensure thorough fermentation. After the primary fermentation, the beer was racked to Cornelius kegs with a minimum of head pressure to protect the beer inside. No priming sugars were used, but proper conditioning relied solely on residual sugars left to ferment out in the unfiltered beer once it was in the bottle. The result was a smooth and creamy beer that, when poured, had a classic softness of conditioning reminiscent of the

English classics.

Tumbledown Barley Wine

A traditional dark English-style barley wine deriving its deep mahogany color

not from specialty grains but a from very long wort boil.

Ingredients for 5 U.S. gal (19 L)

20 lb British two-row pale ale malt (7.26 kg)

2 oz Target hops, 10% alpha acid (56 g) (60 min.)

3 oz Fuggle hops, 4.5% alpha acid (84 g) (60 min.)

1 oz East Kent Golding hops (28 g) (aroma, 2 min.)

1 oz East Kent Golding hops (28 g) (dry-hopped, three to four weeks)

Wyeast 1098 Thames Valley ale yeast

1/3 cup corn sugar for priming

•Original specific gravity: 1.095

•Final specific gravity: 1.024

•Potential alcohol: 9.5 percent by volume

•IBUs: 69

Rest for 60 minutes at 158 degrees F (70 degrees C), stirring occasionally.

Roughneck Barley Wine

An American-style barley wine that, like its commercial counterparts, uses domestic hops and malt as well as

small amounts of specialty grains for added color and complexity. The Cascade hops lend the classic citrusy,

floral Pacific Northwestern hop bouquet that compliments malt aromas so well.

Ingredients for 5 U.S. gal (19 L)

22 lb domestic two-row pale ale malt (6.8 kg)

1/2 lb 40 °L crystal malt (0.23 kg)

1/4 lb chocolate malt (113 g)

1/4 lb CaraPils malt (113 g)

2 oz Galena hops, 12% alpha acid (57 g) (60 min.)

2 oz Chinook hops, 11% alpha acid (57 g) (60 min.)

1 1/2 oz Willamette hops, 4% alpha acid (42 g) (30 min.)

1 oz Cascade hops (28 g) (aroma, 2 min.)

1 oz Cascade hops (dry-hopped, three to four weeks)

Wyeast 1056 American ale yeast

1/3 cup corn sugar for priming

•Original specific gravity: 1.102

•Final specific gravity: 1.023

•Potential alcohol: 10.6 percent by volume

•IBUs: 101

Rest for 60 minutes at 158 degrees F (70 degrees C), stirring occasionally.