A blustery February day in Los Angeles requires a beverage of equal intensity and rareness. Barley wine, a beer of wine-strength marrying sweet caramel and bitter hoppy flavors, is the perfect accompaniment to brisk or stormy day.
The oldest American craft barley wines, and many of the highest-rated, originate here in California. Though the late 18th-century British designation likely refers to its strength, the name barley wine (or barleywine, as is preferred by brewers) could also suggest the beer's vinous taste. By all historical accounts, the British were either too proud to drink the wine of their French enemies — or they'd been entirely cut off from their supply. In either case, the drinking Brits came to rely on their brewers to provide a beverage that would relieve them of their sobriety.
California brewers relaunched the style in the late 1970s and its prestige gains popularity with each decade. Barley wine is very high in alcohol (8-12% abv) and ranges in flavor from port-like and oaky to figgy and fruity. Here is our list of 5 easy-to-find selections (in order of seniority) that span the history of the style in American craft brewing.
The brewing process and shelf-life of barley wine is unique. Most beer yeast are incapable of converting sugar to alcohol beyond 14% — the high alcohol produces dormancy. In other words, the yeast gets drunk off its own by-product. Brewers stimulate the yeast with movement or oxygenation. Longer into the fermentation process, the yeast produces more complex flavors — one of the reasons barley wine ages so well. So buy a bottle to drink and a bottle to lay down.
5. Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale 8.2%
Anchor Steam Brewing Co. (San Francisco); Available Year-Round
Brewed since 1976
We owe much to Fritz Maytag and his Anchor Steam Brewing Company for reviving this style when even English brewers had cast it aside for lighter, more elementary beers. Old Foghorn more closely resembles traditional English barley wine than the others on our list, due to its relatively lower alcohol content and less bitter hop profile. If you want to see how broadly a style can change over the decades this is the perfect beer with which to begin your journey. Want a second opinion? Watch this fun video about the style.
4. Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale 9.6%
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (Chico); Winter Release
Brewed since 1983
Bigfoot may be the quintessential California barley wine and a great one by which to determine your attitude toward the style. It's also a lightweight, coming in under 10%; but it provides big citrus hop bitterness to balance the alcohol sweetness. This is the right choice if you don't want your beer to taste too much like port. And a six-pack makes it perfect for sharing.
3. John Barleycorn Barleywine Style Ale 9.5%
Mad River Brewing Co. (Blue Lake); Winter Release
Brewed since 2000
This often overlooked brewery has been in operation since the early 90's, after buying pieces of Sierra Nevada's equipment following an expansion. Bridging the gap between first generation and contemporary versions of the style, their barley wine exhibits typical caramel and toffee flavors with an unusual herbal presence. Look for a creamy texture and a little quirk. This accessible and widely-available beer is an economical choice, as it also comes in a six-pack.
2. Green Flash Barleywine Style Ale 10.9%
Green Flash Brewing Co. (San Diego); Winter Release
Brewed since 2004
An updated, classic California barley wine, this bitter and sweet beer is widely available and much bigger than its Carter Administration predecessors. It tends toward toffee notes and has a viscous body with unmasked alcohol and a pleasant, dry finish. Do not make the mistake of drinking this one cold. Hold it in your palm while you argue with someone over whether or not they've actually seen a green flash.
1. Rhinocerous Barleywine-Style Ale 9.8%
Telegraph Brewing Co. (Santa Barbara); Limited Release
Brewed since 2009
This beer is an unconventional barley wine both because its release does not necessarily coincide with winter, and because it's more refreshing than other examples of the style. A champion of complexity. Look for varying levels of tartness in conjunction with caramel rye and dark fruit. The antithesis of hoppy barley wines so common to California, this beer is a great example of how brewers today are experimenting with the style.
We would have loved to feature these highly-acclaimed favorite barley wines if they were actually available anywhere. Don't miss the opportunity to try The Angel's Share from Lost Abbey (San Marcos), Sucaba from Firestone Walker (Paso Robles) and Old Numbskull from AleSmith (San Diego.) Look for all of these brews at Beverage Warehouse, Sunset Beer Co., and Select Beer Store.
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