Barley Wine

Submitted by DM on Wed, 04/09/2013 - 22:57

Barley Wine is traditionally a thick, viscous, treacly, dark, strong beer brewed in England in the 19th century.   It does however have a reference back in ancient Greece where it was a strong alcoholic drink made with barley instead of grapes.   It is thought to have originated in its current form from a rejection of all things French during times of war with them, but to have a wine strength drink on the table in upper class houses was both posh & patriotic to Britain.

The style however is forever English even though the Americans are brewing perfectly good ( & of course hoppier, more bitter ) versions.   Not as much as IPA, but this style is abused a little to describe beers at 5% alcohol that are really just strong bitters.   Generally the style has an alcohol level at around 7-12%, like an Old World wine.

Often a higher alcohol tolerant yeast is needed, which can give it wine-like qualities with the amount of fruity esters the cells leak out.   Also a lengthy maturation in barrels can give a lactic, sour flavour to contrast with the thick sweetness in addition of course to the oak flavour.

Historically it can be used to blend with new, lower strength beer to create a new beer with complex, aged qualities, but cheaper than the original Barley Wine.

There is little distinction between a Barley Wine & an Old Ale - indeed it is fairly difficult to define either of these as several breweries produce a very strong, dark ale then call it Old Ale, Barley Wine or neither.

Typical beer yeasts normally have no trouble getting up to the 9-11% range, very dependent on fermentation conditions. To get these few extra percent, you probably need a wine or champagne yeast. (Those yeasts should be good up to 16-17%). Above that you will almost certainly need a high-alcohol specialist yeast, which with a following wind, will get you up to the dizzy heights of 22.5% (although 20-21% is probably a more sensible target as fermentation up at 22% is pretty unpredictable in my experience.

(Alcoholic drinks having a higher ABV than this have been produced by alternative means: distillation (eg whisky / brandy / Brewdog's Tactical Nuclear Penguin / etc) or blending with high alcohol drinks (fortification such as with sherry).


I agree with the distinction between Barley Wines and Old Ales being hazy. IIWKOTW*, Barley Wines would mean a very strong, sweet beer, with Old Ales being typically less strong, but having an aged and/or sour character against a slightly less sweet background.


* If I Were King Of The World. And I'm not. Yet...