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A New Year, A New Beer

Ring in 2022 with a beer you’ve perhaps never tried – Barley Wine. The name itself may be a bit deceiving because while one might wonder if it is a variation of wine or a hybrid of beer and wine, neither are correct. Barley Wine is a true Strong Ale version of beer that is chock-full of hearty complexity best enjoyed during colder months. Let’s dive a little deeper.

The United Kingdom likely has the right to claim ownership of the first Barley Wines ever brewed. In the early 1870s, Bass Brewing Company, out of Staffordshire, England, marketed and sold its No. 1 Ale as a Barley Wine with advertisements portraying an old man with a cane, bundled up in an oversized coat and boots, scarf tucked up to his nose with a hat on, walking through a snowy landscape with the words, “Best Winter Drink!” plastered on the front.

Our first mass-produced Barley Wine in the U.S. didn’t happen until the year 1975, when Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, CA created its Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale. It wasn’t until 1983 that a second Barley Wine was introduced to the American public by Sierra Nevada Brewing out of Chico, CA, named Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale. To note, Barley Wine is historically portrayed as two separate words, however Anchor Brewing decided to combine them into one word for stylistic purposes. In today’s market, you will see “Barley Wine” or “Barleywine” used interchangeably as both versions are readily accepted.

Typically, English-style Barley Wines are slightly less bitter and slightly less hoppy than their American counterparts. Both versions are created using a loaded mixture of malted barley, hops, water and yeast. This mash-up of ingredients also creates a deeper complexity and flavor to the beer. The Brewer’s Association depicts both versions with “flavors of bread, caramel, honey, molasses and toffee.” Sometimes the beer has notes of dark fruits – plums, figs, raisins – and typically these are due to the types and varieties of malts used and the flavors become further prevalent as the beer ages. The English-style is usually darker in color than the American version, but both can range from gold to amber to deeper, darker browns. The body of Barley Wines are full and with a velvety mouthfeel and carbonation is on the lower side.

The ABVs (alcohol by volume) of Barley Wines tend to be in the 8-12% range. In short, the large amount of malts used in the brewing process creates a high original gravity. This leads to a higher amount of sugars that need to be eaten by the yeast in the fermentation process and whereby the sugar is converted by the yeast into alcohol, resulting in high ABVs, and in order to keep the sweetness balanced, extra hops are added in the process as well. The higher the alcohol content, the better a beer holds up in the aging process. In this way, a Barley WINE is similar to a red WINE in that cellaring, or aging, the beer tends to allow the complexity of the beer to grow. A freshly-created Barley Wine and one of the same batch that has been sitting in a dark, cool basement for 3-years will taste remarkably different, with the aged beer even potentially taking on port- or sherry-like flavors. Regardless of age, Barley Wines can taste a bit on the “boozy” side and feel warming on your palate and in your throat.

Middle Ages Brewing, right here in Syracuse, NY has been brewing classic British ales since 1995 and remains one of CNY’s oldest (and best) craft breweries. They brew a Barley Wine called Druid Fluid, and while not always available, it’s worth a trip over to their brewery to sip on a pint and purchase another one to take home to age in your cellar, as it matures nicely too. This Barley Wine, made with 6 different malts, is tried and true. In past years, I have made personal notes of it being sweet, lush and smooth with hidden complexities throughout; it being a dazzlingly warm treat for your entire palate. I attempted to connect with folks at Middle Ages but did not have any luck in obtaining the scoop for when it may “on deck” for brewing or consumption, but hopefully it’ll be available again soon.

In addition, Middle Ages has plenty of other types of Strong Ales to tantalize your tastebuds including Wizard, an English Strong Ale, Highlander Scotch Ale, a Wee Heavy/Scotch Ale, and Wailing Wench, an American Strong Ale.

However, just down the street from Middle Ages and directly across the street from the Niagara Mohawk building is Talking Cursive Brewing Company, who boasts their own fresh (and available!) versions of Barley Wine.

Spill the Wine (11.1% ABV) is an American version of Barley Wine that has been conditioned in stainless steel for 6 months. It boasts a complexity of flavors that your palate may pick up on, including raisins, figs, burnt brown sugar, toffee, molasses, dates, and honey. While slightly bitter, it has a lovely base where I was able to single out the dark fruits aforementioned. A classically delightful brew!

Kisses Sweeter Than Barleywine (12.2% ABV) is the same version as above, aged initially for 6 months in stainless steel, but then transferred over to an Owera Vineyards Ruby-Style Port Wine Barrel, which had also housed Old Home Distillers 5th Anniversary Brother’s Cut Bourbon. THIS is an incredibly luxurious Barley Wine! Boozy, (but not overly-so), it is inundated with both maturity and richness. Molasses, brown sugar, and toffee notes are especially prevalent but with a decadence about the flavors, while the extended aging cuts the slight bitterness present in the original. I enjoyed it immensely with each and every sip!

You can find both of Talking Cursive’s Barley Wines currently on tap available in both 4 oz. and 9 oz. pours and also for purchase in 500mL bottles – $11 for Spill the Wine and $14 for Kisses Sweeter Than Barleywine. Run, don’t walk, to Talking Cursive to try these great beers! & Cheers to a craft beer-filled great New Year ahead!

Kristin Merritt
Just your average craft-brew loving gal slinging your monthly pour of beer education and the low-down on all things beer related in the immediate CNY area and beyond. Along the way I hope to give a few recommendations for your grocery list, events to attend, and local hotspots to hit-up for shenanigans with friends, ideas for date night, or at the very least enlighten you with a bit of random knowledge to use towards trivia night or simply give you and your teammates a suggestion on what to drink at the bar! Cheers!