Serious Beer: Barleywine

Beer Reviews

Seeking out the best in malty, hoppy refreshment.


[Photographs: Liz Clayton]

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.

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...

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.