Barleywines, even in a field of brews with ever-increasing ABVs, are among the biggest of the bunch. They're characterized by their strength, depth, and complexity. Barleywines fall into two categories: English and American. The original English interpretations place a greater emphasis on rich malt and can be darker and fruitier. American barleywines dial up the hop intensity but the best still maintain balance. The significant malt character in a proper American barleywine, often equal to or greater than the hop presence, is what distinguishes it from an imperial IPA.
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I honestly can't tell you the last time that I walked out of a bottle shop carrying only the beer I went in to purchase. There's always a new release, an obscure bottle, or something I forgot I needed before I went inside. Last year my wife, Lauren, and I went bottle shopping while visiting one of her high school friends outside Baltimore. On one of the lower shelves in a local beer shop, I found a cache of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot from 2008 to 2011. I can't say I went into that store looking for a four-year vertical of American barleywines, but I had a good feeling about the way the staff was storing their beers and the opportunity was way too convenient to pass up. It was an impulse buy, no doubt, but one with merit.
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.