BIL= Barleywine Is Life
For some, it is life. A style of beer that has a cult following. And one of my personal favorites in terms of beer styles. And if you’ve ever tried a Barleywine, I’m sure you hold the style in high regard. The term barley wine (and malt wine) was noted in historical documents during the 18th century, when brewers tried to ingratiate with wine drinkers by hinting at the strength, nutrition and quality of their beer. Dubbed “barley wine” to compete with grape wines, they share with wine – maturation, alcohol content, and subtle cask complexity. The commercial moniker was given by distinguished brewer, Bass, a marketing maneuver giving rough guidelines to contemporary strong beer. Barley wine is often appropriately brewed as a commemorative or annual offering to demonstrate the skill of the artful brewmaster.
Despite its name, a Barleywine is very much a beer, and has nothing to do with grapes. Its a strong and intense beer, in fact, it’s one of the strongest styles. Lively and fruity, sometimes sweet, sometimes bittersweet, but always alcoholic. A brew of this strength and complexity can be a challenge to the palate. Expect anything from an amber to a dark brown color, with aromas ranging from rich fruits to bold hops. The body is typically thick, alcohol will definitely be perceived, and flavors range from dominant dark fruits to palate smacking, resiny hops. English varieties are quite different from American efforts, which are often heavily hopped with high alpha oil American hops to create a more bitter brew. English versions tend to be more rounded and balanced with a slightly lower alcohol content, though this is not always the case.
The nose will be very rich and malty, often with a caramel-like aroma. May have moderate to strong fruitiness, often with a dried-fruit character. English hop aroma may range from mild to assertive. Alcohol aromatics may be low to moderate, but never harsh, hot, acrid or solventy. The intensity of these aromatics often subsides with age. The aroma may have a rich character including bready, toasty, toffee, molasses, and/or treacle notes. Aged versions may have a sherry-like quality, possibly vinous or port-like aromatics, and generally more muted malt aromas. Low to no diacetyl should be detected.
The appearance of this style of beer will have color that may range from rich gold to very dark amber or even dark brown. Often has ruby highlights, but should not be opaque. Low to moderate off-white head; may have low head retention. May be cloudy with chill haze at cooler temperatures, but generally clears to good to brilliant clarity as it warms. The color may appear to have great depth, as if viewed through a thick glass lens. High alcohol and viscosity may be visible in “legs” when beer is swirled in a glass.
Flavors are strong, intense, complex, multi-layered malt flavors ranging from bread-y and biscuity through nutty, deep toast, dark caramel, toffee, and/or molasses. Moderate to high malty sweetness on the palate, although the finish may be moderately sweet to moderately dry (depending on aging, and alcohol content). Some oxidative or vinous flavors may be present, and often complex alcohol flavors should be evident. Alcohol flavors shouldn’t be harsh, hot or solventy. Moderate to fairly high fruitiness, often with a dried-fruit character. Hop bitterness may range from just enough for balance to a firm presence; balance therefore ranges from malty to somewhat bitter. Low to moderately high hop flavor (usually old-world hop varieties), with little to no diacetyl.
The mouthfeel is full-bodied and chewy, with a velvety, luscious texture (although the body may decline with long conditioning, as beer tends to thin with age). A smooth warmth from aged alcohol should be present, and should not be hot or harsh. Carbonation may be low to moderate, depending on age and conditioning.
American Barleywines will bear a very similar profile, with differences being in the perceived hop bitterness, and the alcohol content. Inspired by English Barleywine, though brewed with american ingredients, and a substantially higher hopping rate. Americans pretty much took this style, as they did with most other styles, and said “Lets make it bigger! …And throw in way more hops!” American Barleywines typically show high levels of american hop aroma, bitterness, and flavor (though the style isn’t bound to using solely american hops), as well as rich caramel and toffee malt flavors in a robust, high alcohol ale. Typical ABVs for both style Barleywines will be between 8%-15% and will sit in around 60-100 IBU.
The richest and strongest of the English Ales. A showcase of malty richness and complex, intense flavors. The character of these ales can change significantly over time; both young and old versions should be appreciated for what they are. The malt profile can vary widely; not all examples will have all possible flavors or aromas. Most Barleywines can be cellared for years, some even decades, and will age much like wine. Proper glassware to be used for this style would be a Snifter. This is a fantastic beer to sip on for a cold winters night.