Barleywine, for all its heady flavors, is a strange and somewhat divisive beer style that occupies an odd little corner of the current craft beer landscape. Its origins are somewhat nebulous, with beer historian Martyn Cornell (who I defer to on history matters) essentially stating that there’s no reasonable difference between barleywine and “old ale,” and questioning whether the former should even be a viable term.
Regardless, though, the meaning today is fairly well-defined, at least in the mind of the craft beer drinker. Barleywines invariably pack a wallop in terms of ABV, although their colors can range all the way from a deep gold to a nearly opaque obsidian. The English versions tend to pack more of the toffee and dark fruit characteristics of very dark crystal malt, while “American-style” barleywine leans more heavily on hops, to the point that they hover on the line between true barleywine and unusually malty double/imperial IPAs. And of course, both styles are perfectly at home in barrels.
And yet, barleywine isn’t a typical contender for “favorite beer style” among many beer drinkers, even the intense craft beer geeks. It’s never been a style that has sold very well on the market, perhaps because the name and description doesn’t lend itself to easy understanding by more casual drinkers. It also doesn’t help that some states don’t allow breweries to label the beer as simply “barleywine,” and instead require “barleywine-style ale” in an effort to prevent “consumer confusion.” Consider all these factors, and it’s no wonder that many breweries simply shrug and brew an imperial stout instead.
But that doesn’t mean barleywine isn’t a style we love. In fact, for those beer drinkers who appreciate truly rich taste experiences—real “cigar beers” that can easily be swapped into the place of after-dinner digestifs such as brandy—barleywine could be considered the ultimate craft beer style. The fact that so many are barrel-aged only ups the ante.
We were able to assemble 35 barleywines for a blind tasting, and it’s safe to say we were blown away by the average quality of each brew.
Rules and Procedure
- All entries are labeled as barleywines and made in the USA. If it doesn’t say “barleywine” on there somewhere, it’s not included. Obviously, there is no ABV limit for this style. We also included any barrel-aged barleywines, because it would have been a pretty boring list if we didn’t.
- There’s a limit of two entries per brewery, which doesn’t affect things much.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, beer reps and assorted journalists. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged.
The Field: Beers #35-21
This is really a tough one for us. I think it’s safe to say, with the possible exception of our American sours tasting, that this group of barleywines may have gotten the highest average scores on any given entrant of any tasting we’ve ever done. There were just so many tasty beers among the 35. Of those missing the “finals” group of 20, there were some classics of the genre—say, the Stone Old Guardian Barleywine, for instance. Tasty beer. Did well on pretty much all the score sheets. But unfortunately most of these beers did well on all the score sheets. So don’t think we didn’t enjoy these beers just because they didn’t make the top 20.
They’re listed below in alphabetical order, and thus are not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Avery Brewing Co. Hog Heaven
DuClaw Brewing Co. Devil’s Milk
Flying Dog Brewery Horn Dog Barleywine-style Ale
Independence Brewing Co. TEN Anniversary Ale
Great Divide BBA Old Ruffian Barley Wine
Southern Tier Backburner
Starr Hill Bandstand Barleywine
Stone Old Guardian Barleywine
Thirsty Dog Bernese Barley Wine Ale
Two Roads Brewing Co. 20 Ton Ale
Uinta Anniversary Barley Wine
Weyerbacher Brewing Co. Blithering Idiot
Point Whole Hog Barleywine
Widmer Brewing Co. Old Embalmer
Yards Brewing Co. Olde Bartholomew
Next: The finals! Barleywines #’s 20-1
City: Chico, CA
The verdict: Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot is of course one of the historical classics of this style, and one of the oldest and most archetypal examples of “American barleywine” in general. It’s a beer that has helped many explore the concept of aging and “verticals,” as it’s not too difficult to get hold of a five-year array of Bigfoot bottles to see how the beer has changed over time. Comparatively, it’s actually among the drier examples you’ll find in this style, and notably hop-forward. The hops present with lots of resinous pine, grapefruit and some tropical influences, and also contribute a large charge of bitterness, blurring the lines between this beer and an old-school American-style DIPA. It remains a classic of the genre, and a beer we couldn’t possibly have done this tasting without.
City: Kemp, TX
The verdict: This English-style barleywine came packed in one of the odder cans we’ve seen—the style is printed on the box, but the cans themselves have absolutely no indication what the beer is, besides being a “special release.” Regardless, Fisticuffs is the malt and fruit-forward beer you’d expect from most English barleywines, with toffee-like sweetness and a fruit character that came off oddly specific—like fresh cherries in particular. Beers like these are going for malt intensity, malt complexity and richness, which this one accomplishes while still being on the overall lighter end of the beers we sampled. It’s funny when you say that about any barleywine, but I assure you that when you taste 35 of them next to each other over the course of a few days, the differences become apparent.
City: San Diego, CA
The verdict: This is a barleywine we’ve tasted before, but one that stands out in interesting ways when put against the field. It’s not necessarily a beer that we ever really associated with hops in the past, but it’s quite the hop-forward offering, and it’s impressive how cleanly those hop-derived tropical fruit and citrus flavors come through on an 11% ABV beer. This isn’t a hop bomb, though—rather, it’s wonderfully balanced example of American barleywine that backs up the initial hoppiness you get on the nose with solid but measured caramel and toffee, all while staying on the drier side. This is a very well-balanced take on barleywine, and you’ve got to appreciate that in a field where so many of the entries are absolutely unbalanced (if delicious) in one direction or the other.
City: Warren, VT
The verdict: This unusual barleywine was aged on maple wood and received an infusion of Vermont maple syrup, making for something that immediately stood out as nebulously different during its blind tasting. Other online tasters have alluded to a cloying sweetness and attributed it to the syrup, but we didn’t really get a ton of residual sugar on this one—rather, we were intrigued by some of the darker malt characteristics in play. Thanks to the molasses/nutty/toffee characteristics, it almost feels like something of a cross between an American barleywine and say, an imperial brown ale—more of a toasty quality than we found in many of the other barleywines, with definite cocoa undertones and a hint of sour woodiness. Nothing else we tasted that day was quite like it.
City: Crozet, VA
The verdict: We’re not sure how you keep a 13.5% ABV beer this relatively dry, but the barrel-aging certainly must have had something to do with it. Most of the bourbon barrel-aged barleywines in this lineup announced their presence through massive booziness and outright whiskey-like aromatics, but Starr Hill’s barrel-aged version of Bandstand is a bit different. Here, it’s the woodiness that gets accentuated most, and that tannin perhaps helps dry out what would otherwise be a very sweet, rich beer. This is definitely one for people who love the flavors of oak—one taster’s score sheet recorded that it tasted like it was “aged inside an ent,” which sounds like a weird (and very nerdy) criticism until you realize that he meant it in a good way. Another taster’s notes sum things up nicely: “very clean and drinkable (for something this boozy).” Either way, it’s interesting stuff.
City: Amherst, WI
The verdict: Okay, now here’s a barrel-aged barleywine that is much closer to what the typical beer geek has probably come to expect from the phrase “bourbon barrel-aged barleywine.” The nose is massively whiskey-forward, and Paste editor Josh Jackson described it as the best aromatics of any beer on the table that day. On the palate, the booze flavors are clean but very assertive—this one is a whiskey showcase for sure. There is, however, also some nice dark maltiness present, with more toasted malt and even cocoa quality, and correspondingly less of the dark fruitiness than in some of the other barrel-aged examples. No one would describe this one as balanced … it’s more like the neat whiskey-drinker’s barleywine. Thankfully, we’ve got a few of those at Paste.
City: Portland, OR
The verdict: This complex barleywine hits the twin notes of fruit and American hops equally aggressively, which makes for an effective combination. Initial flavors feature rich fruits—fresh cherry, licorice and dried raisin—and resinous hops, but this is one we found to open up over time. It develops some of those musty, leathery aromatics that we fondly associate with “old bookstore,” which happens to be one of those characteristics that many barleywine drinkers treasure. Most tasters specifically noted the piney hops on the finish, which gave a clue that this beer was hailing from the Pacific Northwest. It’s a well-balanced American barleywine that earns a few extra points via malt complexity.
City: Fort Collins, CO
The verdict: It’s funny to think that if this were a wine-judging competition, a sommelier would tear a drink like this apart for being “jammy,” but move it to a barleywine tasting and suddenly that’s a much more desirable quality. New Belgium’s latest Lips of Faith release is an English barleywine treated with a copious shot of blackberry, which announces its presence immediately. Drinkers might not immediately perceive that it’s blackberry specifically (one taster thought it was more grapey), but the residual sweetness and fresh berry fruitiness are certainly there, enhanced by what may be a little bit of tartness. The crystal malt character unsurprisingly gets pushed back a little, to the extent that a blind taster might not peg this immediately as a barleywine, but it would be obvious as something high-gravity, rich and fruit-infused, which is close enough. This is quite clearly the fruit-lover’s take on barleywine.
City: Paso Robles, CA
The verdict: Be proud of our restraint on this one—this bottle of Helldorado arrived in the Paste office at least 6-8 months ago, but we socked it away in anticipation of an eventual blind barleywine tasting. That’s dedication. It’s a decidedly weird beer, a “blonde barleywine” (of which we had several) aged in whiskey barrels, which produces a beer that is even more different than one might expect. The tartness derived via barrel-aging seems more intense, and rather than the dark/dried fruit combo, there’s a fruitiness that comes off to me as much more tropical—almost white wine, pinot grigio-esque. At the same time, the whiskey is also quite present, but coupled with the unexpected color it managed to confuse a few of the tasters into thinking perhaps this was a rum-barreled beer. In terms of appearance vs. perception, Helldorado offered the biggest dichotomy of the tasting.
City: Petaluma, CA
The verdict: Sometimes in these tastings, there’s a beer on the table that performs really well on every single score sheet, and yet there’s essentially no discussion of it during that day’s tasting. That was GnarlyWine—extremely well-executed, and yet still sneaking under the radar while we spent our time discussing some of the more extreme offerings. What we have here though is a prototypical American barleywine—hoppier than most, with a nice citrus character that perfectly balances toasty malt and caramelized sugar. It’s a touch sweeter than some of the others that also feature notable hops, which gives the citrusy hops an enjoyable, juicy impression. One taster deemed it “a hybrid of English and American” on his score sheet in reference to the sherry-like booziness and dark malt in contrast to American hops. But regardless of whether it’s a hybrid of anything, it’s a classic we won’t overlook again.
City: Ipswich, MA
The verdict: Pretty much every taster used the words “complex” or “subtle” somewhere in their descriptions of this beer from Clown Shoes, which is all the more impressive, given that we’re talking about a brandy barrel-aged English barleywine. In fact, this was one of the most subtle barrel-aged beers we sampled, to the extent that it’s not blatantly obvious tasting blind that it saw time inside a barrel … although a few tasters suspected. What you get is a nutty, fruity barleywine with cocoa-like richness in the finish and flavors that continue to develop and unfold as it warms. Next to some of the other beers on the table, it’s a bit less flashy, but quite rewarding. It’s indicative of the different statements one can make via barrel-aging, and the subtle enhancements it can offer as opposed to automatically becoming the star of the show.
City: Avondale, GA
The verdict: Wild Heaven’s Height of Civilization was our only tequila barrel-aged barleywine, which immediately makes for a significantly different experience. It’s on the sweeter side, but correspondingly thinner of body than many, making it a bit easier to drink. Rather than the big vanilla and caramel notes one would expect to get out of a good whiskey barrel, the flavors are much more exotic—herbaceous, earthy and peppery, which intrigued and confused tasters in equal measure. To quote one amusing scoresheet: “tastes like something an old, grizzled fisherman would be drinking during a storm.” It’s complex and boozy, especially on the nose, but in a different way than we’re used to. It’s probably the most unique beer that worked its way into the top 10.
City: Bloomington, IN
The verdict: Upland is a brewery that seems to hit a barrel-aged home run every once in a while, and this barleywine may be the latest. Very sweet and hugely booze-forward, this beer tastes significantly larger than its 9.5%—I dare say it was boozier than some of the 11 and 12% beers, but in an appreciable way. Dark toffee richness and whiskey are complemented by additional booze/fruit notes that give a distinct brandied fruitcake impression. It saves itself from being too boozy to drink, however, with a little bit of tannic woodiness. Despite that, it’s still very rich stuff. The top portion of the rankings was ultimately filled with similar types of bourbon barrel-aged beers, but Barrel Chested fits comfortably in among that same group. And we also enjoy the label, by the way.
City: San Francisco, CA
The verdict: Here’s one we were genuinely surprised and then pleased to discover when the bottles were revealed. Old Foghorn is the original American barleywine, a living legend first bottled in 1976, making this the 40th anniversary, but such “legacy beers” don’t always do too well in a blind tasting setting. Notably fruit forward, bursting with both fresh (raspberry, blackberry) and dried fruit (raisin) flavors, it’s impeccably balanced with medium-strength caramel and the unmistakable floral/grapefruit aroma of Cascade hops. Paste editor Josh Jackson was effusive with praise in his notes: “So well-crafted, so impressive. The platonic ideal of barleywines.” It’s also a little lighter on the palate than some of the others, leaning on complexity more than bombastic individual flavor notes. We’re really pleased to see an American classic confirm that it’s still a great beer.
City: San Francisco, CA
The verdict: The tip-top of the rankings ended up being dominated by barrel-aged beers (we’re shocked), but first let’s talk about one last hop-forward barleywine. This is a great example of a truly American barleywine, establishing a solid canvas of caramel and bready malt before splattering it with American hops, Pollock-style. The hops present a touch piney but predominantly citrus, bursting with juicy orange and lemon zestiness. Or as one taster wrote: “Burnt sugar and hops. Very unique and cool.” It’s very nicely balanced, and manages to zero in on exactly that “American barleywine” range where it’s clear this is a barleywine rather than a malty DIPA—we’re not sure exactly where the line is, but Lower De Boom knows exactly how close to that line it should stray. Also, lest we forget, we think the 8 oz mini-can is a spectacular idea, and we would love to see more high-ABV beers packaged in smaller volumes rather than bigger. This is a barleywine you can enjoy without fear of going overboard.
City: Aurora, CO
The verdict: We typically see a good degree of variation among the top 5 when we do these blind tastings, but when it came to barleywines, the tasters simply couldn’t deny how tasty the top tier of barrel-aged offerings became. That’s not to say there weren’t some lesser bourbon barrel barleywines here, but the next five were on another level. The Dry Dock offering is big, burly, syrupy and full-bodied, with butterscotch and vinous flavors that definitely evoked brandy as well as whiskey. A boozy after-dinner digestif of a beer and a sipper, with “the body of a pro wrestler,” according to one score sheet. Another sheet favorably compares its malt complexity to the classic JW Lees English barleywine. This is a good example of a barrel-aged beer that certain drinkers would find “too rich,” but others would go to any length to acquire. We’re in the second camp.
City: Gary, IN
The verdict: This is a big barleywine, the kind of beer where one taster’s score sheet just starts with “Whoa.” Whiskey character is assertive, but the beer isn’t one-dimensional by any means—if anything, it leans a bit more heavily on an incredibly deep sea of maltiness and some very dark fruit flavors than it does on the whiskey. Molasses-like sugar mixes with stewed plum, port wine and a cola-like spice that I’ve picked up in a few other whiskey barrel-aged beers as of late. An excellent synthesis of the base beer and the barrels it entered, with character to spare. We only wish we had another bottle for further introspection!
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: You can make a case for supporting or not supporting an Anheuser-owned brewery in Goose Island, but you’d be a fool to deny that they’re still making spectacular barrel-aged ales in 2016, because they clearly are. This one is very boozy, with plenty of whiskey but also quite a lot of oak-derived woodiness … perhaps the bourbon drops out slightly, given that Goose Island re-uses Bourbon County Stout barrels for this one? Regardless, there’s still plenty of whiskey and vanilla to go around, and it supports tons of dark fruit that will have you thinking raisin and prune. From one score sheet: “chocolate, raisin, maple, dessert! Full and hearty.” It’s a masterfully made barleywine that demands your attention.
City: Placentia, CA
The verdict: With so many outstanding barrel-aged barleywines, the ones that stand out most ultimately become the beers that are able to develop some kind of unique statement … or the ones that simply express the most beautiful balance. The Bruery’s Mash probably falls into the latter classification. Dark fruitiness is its calling card, with a real “Fig Newton” combo coming from the combination of jammy fruit and toasted, bready malt and caramel. A few tasters even cited toasted coconut; an interesting note in a barleywine that thrives thanks to complexity. This is a beer that begs for extended contemplation and analysis—and it doesn’t only request it, but it deserves it.
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: After tasting Straight Jacket, we were not at all surprised to see that it was a gold medal winner at FOBAB—Chicago’s Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers—because this beer from Revolution is an absolute monster. There’s a stupid amount of flavor in this beer—it’s like you’re drinking it straight out of the barrel, and each barrel still had a quart of whiskey in it when the beer entered.
Of course, “tastes biggest” is not a free pass to “tastes best.” The amazing thing about Straight Jacket is that it takes these massively rich flavors—vanilla custard, grade A maple syrup, butterscotch—and somehow creates something that is not difficult to drink and enjoy. This beer isn’t “challenging,” or any of the words we beer writers like to use in order to describe something you have to work at in order to savor. God help us, this gigantic, whiskey-soaked, 13.5% ABV barleywine is somehow frighteningly drinkable. It’s like all the rough edges have been expertly smoothed away with a bevel made of solidified bourbon. It’s downright scary.
I close with this: One of the taster’s notes for this beer simply read “Oh my god.” Is it any wonder it’s our new favorite barleywine?
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he was drinking homebrew barleywine while writing most of this. You can follow him on Twitter.