1) It’s winter, and there is simply no better time of the year at which to indulge in some of the beer world’s strongest, most complex creations;
2) By coincidence, it’s a snowy, blowy, nasty day here in Toronto – ideal conditions for popping the caps on a barleywine or two, which is precisely what I’ll do a little later today for my Session post at That’s the Spirit;
3) It’s a great warm-up for the Toronado Barleywine Festival in San Francisco later this month, at which I’ll be judging.So, what precisely is a barleywine? I’ll leave the historical musings to others and instead confine my comments to how I like to define the style. A barleywine, for me, comes in one of two versions: British-style (the original) and American-style (the revivalist). In the former instance, it should be richly malty with a bracing backbone of hop bitterness to carry the residual sugars of the malt. Complex flavour notes might, but might not, include stewed fruit, toasted nuts, chocolate, intense caramel, molasses, treacle and fruity brandy. What it should not be is overly sweet, which is where I personally draw the line between barleywine and old ale, since the sweetness of the latter when young should diminish over time and leave even more complicated flavour notes in its place.
On the American side of the ledger, hops are generally going to come first and malt will provide the skeleton on which to hang all that bitter body mass. Flavors should still be complex and multi-faceted, with bitterness, dried rather than stewed fruit, tanned leather, citrus peel (if American hops dominate, as they so often do in this style), and raw nuts potentially factoring into the mix. These beers are generally quite strong with a good kick of alcohol in the body – which is where they generally diverge from the double IPA style – and are usually good candidates for the cellar.
Where the two styles merge is in how they are best enjoyed, which is typically in front of a roaring fire on a frozen winter’s eve, either alone as a nightcap or with a piece or three of very dark, high cocoa content chocolate. In a restaurant, either will serve well as a digestif, in place of the conventional cognac or single malt, while bars are best to position them as one-time indulgences rather than by-the-pint beers.
For my Session post here, I’ve selected the Old Boardhead Barleywine from Oregon’s Full Sail Brewing, a beer I’ve enjoyed many times in the past and hope to again experience on multiple occasions in the future. American in style, Boardhead casts a nod, too, at British traditions by offering a rich, plum-laden aroma and very full body. The Yankee in it triumphs, though, with brandied raisins and orange zest joining the plum in the nose and sultanas, cinnamon, freshly shelled hazelnuts and nutmeg holding forth within the ascending bitterness of the body. The finish is off-dry, moderately bitter and lingering, with a warming hit of the beer’s 9% alcohol hanging on to sooth the spirit.
Overall, I’d classify the Old Boardhead as a highly enjoyable ale that would be welcome in front of my or anyone else’s fireplace. It’s perhaps not as complex as some, and less suited to cellaring than many, but its relatively gentle nature also makes it more amenable to food than, arguably, most American entries in the category.