The methods and mediums through which we communicate our messages of varying degrees – love, discontentedness, affection, or scorn – have evolved over time. We’ve penned poems of unrequited love, immortalized our affection for pottery in hieroglyphics, and angrily banged defenses of our favorite brewery’s honor in 140-characters from behind a keyboard.
Scour beer message boards, Twitter, or any other form of social media and you’re bound to come across a simple hashtag: #BIL. Barleywine is Life. It’s become an inside joke that, truthfully, no one can really tell who is being serious and who is being facetious. That’s the way the internet is.
Is the pervasive #BIL hashtag a serious homage to an underrated style – a new age way to profess our love for the style? Or is it a dig at pretentiousness run amok amongst so called cognoscenti of craft beer? Or is it a bit of both?
Within the landscape of the beer world, the style sometimes fails to garner appreciation amongst the geekiest of cellar dwellers, but it over-excites those that love barleywines.
“Barleywines are certainly an under-appreciated style,” said Brad Clark of Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery. “Why is this? I could never figure this out. Maybe because ‘wine’ is in the name it literally confuses the majority of beer consumers. Maybe its because its a difficult style to brew therefore not many people attempt it. I also think it has this "old man" effect. For the most part people don't find much excitement in the style, but the people who do get excited about take it to a whole different level. #BIL.” (Yes, that was Clark hashtagging in that quote.)
An American Barleywine is going to feature a heightened malt bill that will counteract bitterness with rich, full-bodied & boozy sweetness.”
Boulevard’s Ambassador Brewer Jeremy Danner says appreciation for a Barleywine begins with paying attention to each individual ingredient and its role in the beer.
“It’s easy to say, ‘This is a huge beer,’” he told me. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Barleywines are really good for thinking about each ingredient. What am I getting from each layer of caramel malt? What am I getting from this hop? It’s a great style for giving the beer some attention.”
Barleywines are complex not just in flavor. First off, the name. Is it barleywine, one word, or is it barley wine? It’s also been imprinted on labels as “barley wine style ale.” It’s appeared as all three. Then there’s a cross-continental divide. Often barleywine drinkers find themselves choosing a side like it’s Colonial America and the American Barleywines are the Patriots and the English Barleywine loyalists are Tories.
According to the Beer Judge Certification Program’s official style guidelines, an English barleywine is a “wintertime sipper.” It should range somewhere in between 8-12% alcohol by volume and lean heavily on malts, rather than the hoppiness of its American counterparts. An English Barleywine is rich in dark fruits or toffee, “chewy and rich in body.” It’s a decadent dessert, almost like a Port Wine.
The American Barleywine is more akin to a souped-up Double IPA than it is its European ancestor. The American style is an aggressively hopped beer that asserts itself through hop bitterness, but is rarely unbalanced. A well-made American Barleywine is going to feature a heightened malt bill that will counteract the bitterness with rich, full-bodied and boozy sweetness.
Both styles have the same range of ABV, typically atop a brewery’s list of offerings, but both styles also lend themselves nicely to time spent in a barrel. Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s Jay Eychaner says barleywine flavors are “enhanced significantly through the barrel-aging process.”
“It is the layers of character,” Clark says of barrel-aging. “The focus on caramel malt and the ABV. These fortified liquid candy bars love hanging out in spirit barrels.”
“The flavors in a barleywine and the flavors from a barrel tend to blend really well,” added Danner. “It gives the beer a little more of a punctuation mark.”
In some ways, an affection for barleywine become a status symbol. This is the level of craft beerdom you should be lucky to obtain. But, for some people, like me, barleywines are just a style of beer for which I’ve been an unrelenting affinity.
“Beer is art” is a stupid term, however true, but the association I make with barleywines is opening a well-made barleywine on a cold night, pouring it into two or three or four glasses amongst friends and family, and enjoying an hour-long session of drinking, conversation, and appreciation.
“I'll drink barleywine year-round, but most beer drinkers are going to want to pull these out in the colder months for the warmth they provide,” Eychaner told me. “Barleywines are typically enjoyed after a meal, or as a dessert beer.”
“Big beers are meant to be shared,” said Eychaner’s brewing partner Hardywood, Justin Becker. “They’re best as a conversation piece or as a compliment to long conversations with friends.”
Jackie O’s Brewing Brick Kiln
There’s also a ridiculously good barrel-aged version of this, but the preference for me is the straight-up English-Style Brick Kiln. This beer is great right out of the fridge, but its best feature might be the latter third of the beer after it warms up a bit to showcase the malt complexities.
Goose Island Bourbon County Barleywine
On Black Friday every year, Goose Island releases the Bourbon County series. While the stout variants garner much of the attention, the underrated star has always been the barleywine, with layers of rich caramel sweetness and low carbonation. A wonderful way to appreciate all that we have on the day after Thanksgiving.
Firestone Walker Sucaba
I’ve written about this beer before for October. I called it “perhaps the best beer I’ve ever had.” As we understand, “best” as an adjective for anything is speculative at best, foolish at its worst. Part of the “brown box” series at FW. Maybe the star of it.
Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Aged Barleywine
Central Waters is making its name known across the big beer world with their reserve series. This barleywine, smooth and just a slight warming booziness to it, is perfect for those cold Wisconsin winters.
Boulevard Bundle Up
Despite being atop the Kansas City brewing scene since 1989, Bundle Up is Boulevard’s first Barleywine. This beer is “situated at the intersection of American and English Barleywine,” full bodied, and contains waves of caramel malts.
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot
Legend has it that when Ken Grossman sent Bigfoot to the lab for its initial tasting, the consensus came back that it was “too bitter.” According to that tale, the craft pioneer had a one-word response: “Good.” This American Barleywine is the most bitter of this group, but it’s a classic. The twist? Give it a couple years in a dark, cool place and this beer changes almost entirely. The hops will recede and the malt sweetness will come forward, making this beer go down a tad easier than it’s 9.8% ABV would suggest it should.
Dogfish Head Olde School
This is my favorite barleywine. DFH owner Sam Caligione read that dates and figs were used as preservatives in beer way back when, so he included them in this recipe. This is a big barleywine at 15% and, technically, an American version. To me, it drinks more English with dark fruits and a chewy mouthfeel. Splurge for a four-pack or two. Drink one, save the others for various times in the next decade (seriously). For me, the sweet spot is three years.
Hardywood Park Craft Brewery Barley in the Rye
This one might be a little tougher to come by, but Hardywood is making great big beers. Their American Barleywines are no exception. The rye measured well alongside the bitterness of the hops and sweet malts.