First things first, despite it’s name, barley wine is not wine at all – it’s a type of beer. It’s no ordinary beer, it’s a very, very strong beer. It does contain some malted barley though, so at least the name isn’t a complete misnomer.
Barley wine (also known as Barleywine) got British beer fans talking again recently, after Lacons Audit Ale was named CAMRA’s Champion Winter Beer of Britain for 2019 CAMRA. It was described as judges as “a unique style of beer…a dark copper barley wine with flavours of berry fruit and spice.”
While Lacons deservedly took the plaudits, some uninitiated observers may have been left asking, ‘what isa barley wine anyway?’
Lacons is known for its heritage brewing techniques and they certainly picked a beer style with a unique story to tell and a rich history behind it.
The history of barley wine – where does it come from?
Barley wine is a very British ale that has its roots in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a time due to regular conflicts with near-neighbours France, it was considered unpatriotic amongst the quaffing classes to drink French wines. Therefore an high-strength substitute grew in popularity, with barley wines reaching up to 12% in ABV, similar to a good bottle of red. It could also be stored for a couple of years.
According to CAMRA, Whitbread’s Gold Label (10.9%) became the biggest selling barley wine for a long time. You can still spot it knocking around in it’s distinctively retro looking gold cans (which bear the slightly unnerving description of ‘VERY STRONG SPECIAL BEER’ on the front).
What does barley wine taste like?
CAMRA’s tasting notes tell you to “expect massive sweet malt and ripe fruit of the pear drop, orange and lemon type, with darker fruits, chocolate and coffee if darker malts are used.” The malts sit alongside bitterness and peppery, floral notes from the generous amount of hops. The style was also adopted in the US, where it became even hoppier. It pours a golden amber or dark brown, and both the American and British version of barley wine offer a heavily malted and full strength beer.
Modern day barley wines
Barley wine has enjoyed something of a resurgence among microbreweries and craft brewers in recent years, with high strength beers popular for the craft beer fraternity to experiment with. Its strength make it a good option for cellaring too, just to keep with the wine theme, as a bottle of decent barley wine can keep for years and will age well.
Some examples to look out for include Fuller’s Vintage Ale (8.5%), JW Lees Vintage Harvest Ale, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot and Anchor Old Foghorn, as well as Lacons’ award-winning Audit Ale, of course.
Main barley wine tasting image by Erin Kohlenberg