Serious Beer: Barleywine


Those of us without fireplaces may turn in winter to the olden-style warmth of barleywine. Also written as barley wine, the stuff is not actually wine, but nearly wine-strength beer, and when you open up a few at once the whiff is an eerie mix of earthy, sweet, and malty beer-ishness... not entirely unlike smelling the sticky concrete floor of a ballpark concourse.

These strong, high-gravity ales can be found across a dynamic range of depths and flavors, all a little daunting and intense in their own ways. Bittersweet, sometimes syrupy barleywines aren't for everyone, but a taste here and there can greatly expand your preconceived notions of beer. Here are a few tasting notes from my recent explorations of the style.

Serious Beer Ratings

***** Mindblowing; a new favorite **** Awesome, stock up on this *** Around average for the style ** There are probably better options * No, thanks, I'll have water.

Emelisse Barley Wine Ale Netherlands, 10% ABV Intense but approachable with a viscous-to-bitter trajectory that stings of underripe stonefruit like tart apricot, this is a pleasant and practical barleywine. Warming, but just a little edgy, Emelisse is not pulling any punches in this round. ****

Nøgne Ø #100 Norway, 10% ABV One of the most inventive of the barleywines we tasted was this entry from exciting Nøgne Ø. The nose on big-headed #100 is crazy—like beef consomme or a wine sauce. The taste is fresher and hoppier than the others sampled, its savory characteristics met by a spicy, mapley effervescence. I don't love you, #100, but I definitely respect you. ****

Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot Pennsylvania, 11.1% ABV Idiocy is sweet—in this case it's almost too sweet—but Weyerbacher's entry into the barleywine world is pleasant and would be a good introduction for the timid. The nose is straight up beer-y and lagerish, but you're followed up with a sip of citrusy, mellow spice and a dash of holiday figgy pudding. ***1/2

Victory Old Horizontal Pennsylvania, 11% ABV Another very sweet barley wine, Old Horizontal is an astringent, near-medicinal, but surprisingly palatable ale. Fizzy and sugar-candyish, at 11%, this might be more drinkable than it should be... ***1/2

Harpoon Leviathan Barley Wine Style Ale Massachusetts and Vermont, 10% ABV Barleywines can run towards the twisted, and Leviathan's got a warped attitude like an orange-toffee candy gone astray. Lush deep amber color of the brew which looks (and drinks!) almost like liquor, but the medicinally sweet finish ends sharply. **

Brooklyn Monster Ale New York, 10.1% ABV Despite being named after a fairly charming cat, this barleywine is less than sweet, milder and deader on the palate than other barleywines. Slightly sour but charmingly earthy. An uncontroversial brew at a particularly uncontroversial end of the barleywine spectrum. **