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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. Hops are often still prominent, especially when young, but generally not as intense as citrusy and piney American hops. 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.
Below are 9 fantastic barleywines to put on your must-drink list. Some are English style and some American. With no disrespect intended to J.W. Lees or my dear, beloved Thomas Hardy's, I limited this collection to beers brewed in the U.S. We'll take a trip across the pond later on.
Pelican Pub & Brewery Mother of All Storms 2010
A hat tip to Lee Williams for pointing me toward this beauty a year and a half ago. Mother of All Storms (13.5% ABV) is a decadent affair, packed with chocolate ganache, dark caramel, orange cream and raisins. It's chewy and full, a real smooth character. With its own double-digit ABV compounded by its time in bourbon barrels, there's no fooling about its strength, but there's no burn in the finish. Unlike many barleywines, Mother of All Storms drinks great as soon as its released (which isn't to say it might not improve with a little age). This is on the short list of best beers I've ever tasted, of any style.
Sun King Brewery Johan the Barleywine
Barleywine in a can? Oh yeah. This chestnut brown English barleywine overflows with raisins, toffee, dates, and caramel. There's a bit of aged rum in the aroma. It's hefty at first in your mouth, but the carbonation lifts. Johan (10.0%) is a vinous brew with a slight tart cherry flavor in the finish. Sun King came out guns blazing at GABF last year, taking home eight medals, including two for Johan. Not too shabby, considering this is the first beer the brewery ever produced.
Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Sucaba
Sucaba (12.5% ABV), formerly known as Abacus, pours a deep, ruby brown. The first whiff is green banana, quickly followed by oak, brown sugar, and graham cracker. The flavor brings more oak, chocolate-covered cherry, and deep, rich, dark fruits. No matter how you arrange the letters in its name, this beer is delicious and smooth.
Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project Our Finest Regards
Our Finest Regards (11.8% ABV) is nutty, with brown sugar and a hint of roast. Perhaps more than any of the others, this is a showcase for malt. Some sweet cherry and plum are highlights. This is full bodied and tips toward the sweet side, but oh how it works. What's most remarkable is how well the alcohol is incorporated. It's deceptively strong.
New Glarus Brewing Co. Thumbprint Series Barley Wine
American and European hops intertwine in the aroma, blending grapefruit and orange with herbaceous notes and a tinge of alcohol. Toasty, graham cracker malt and and hints of clover honey support the hops. New Glarus isn't shy about the warming alcohol (12.0% ABV), but it's worn well. This is an incredibly well-made beer, smooth and attenuated to a fine, dry finish.
Flying Dog Brewing Co. Horn Dog Barley Wine Style Ale
Massive amounts of plum, fig and dates accompanied by black bread. Layers of caramel malt and a fair amount of sweetness conceal a subtle alcohol warmth. Horn Dog (10.2% ABV), which took GABF gold in barleywine last year, is definitely more in the English camp, with hops only hanging in the background. Extra points for putting a huge beer in a small bottle. 7 oz is just about the perfect size for a beer of this strength.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Bigfoot 2012
This year's Bigfoot (a relatively sessionable 9.6% ABV) opens with a huge burst of fresh, sticky hops, all tropical and citrusy. Ample malt sweetness stands up to the hops in aroma and flavor. It's medium full-bodied, smooth, and creamy. The otherwise fruity hops strike a floral note midpalate. There's no wondering why this is considered by many to be the beer by which all other American barleywines are measured.
Stone Brewing Co. Old Guardian 2012
Intense grapefruit, pine, and orange marmalade play against bready malts. There's a creamy caramel sweetness underlying the substantial bitter blast and ending alcohol bite. Old Guardian (11.0% ABV) had the biggest hop blast of those mentioned here, but there's plenty of English malt there to back it up and keep this out of imperial IPA territory. There's a bit of a red apple aroma that emerges as the beer warms, perhaps a product of the newish Calypso hops Stone incorporated into this year's batch.
Great Divide Brewing Co. Old Ruffian
Aromas of meyer lemon, tangerine, and pine give way to candied apple as the beer warms. The first sip of Old Ruffian (10.2%) draws you in sweetly, more sugar than caramel, with bready malt before a massive hop punch snaps back firmly with bitterness that lingers into the finish.
New Glarus, Stone, and Sierra Nevada provided samples for review consideration.