The Session: Barleywines

Barleywines never seemed like beer to me, and maybe that’s why I’ve been so slow to latch onto them. My first real experience with barleywines was a kegger I went to several years ago where the only beer available was Middle Ages Druid Fluid. While Druid Fluid is a fine ale, it is a thick and heavy brew, fit to drink out of a goblet when one doesn’t have to drive anywhere. My intoxication level was off the charts, and my mouth was dry and ashy. The night was fun, but the after-effects may have turned me off to barleywines altogether.

It’s a new era, however, and in the interest of expanding my admittedly biased palate, I have been trying to develop a taste for barleywines so I can see what I’m missing. Since both readers of this little blog know that I am a certified hop-head, it often takes me forcing down beverages of unfamiliar genre in order to begin the act of enjoying them. Last winter I did exactly that with porters, stouts and brown ales. This year I have decided to jump on the barleywine, Scottish/Scotch-ale and Belgian Ale bandwagons.

Some have questioned the notion of coercing the taste buds into accepting a new vocabulary. A few people have said to me, “Why would you make yourself drink something that you don’t like?” My answer is that there was a time I didn’t have a taste for craft beer, yet I kept trudging through, trying beer after beer, eventually developing a set of styles that I liked. I hope that others will consider this a humble step on the tall spiral staircase that is a beer geek’s journey.

In most cases with me and beer, there is a tipping point. I think mine came several months ago when stopping for a nightcap at the newly reopened Empire Brewing Company in Syracuse’s Armory Square. Fellow ‘Jangler Willie Moe and I had been tipped off months before that the EBC would be selling a five-years-aged barleywine that had been produced before the original Empire closed its doors in 2003. This brew was phenomenal. Served in a stemmed tulip glass, it was sweet but bitter, with dry hops and a wonderfully pungent sourness. It was perfect, and flipped on the light switch in my head: this is what a barleywine is. It was bittersweet; sweet knowing I had discovered a terrific style, bitter knowing that these things were usually way more expensive than regular beers and I was a cheap bastard.

First, let me talk briefly about the barleywines I’m not quite in love with. This is certainly not to diminish the product of any of the fine breweries I frequent, but rather to illustrate where barleywines do it for me and where they don’t. The one barleywine I had a real hard time drinking was the Mendocino Talon, sold in the wonderful Saratoga Brewery tasting room. I chalk my dislike for this beer to my own shortcomings, as it seems like it would be a wonderful beer for a connosieur of barleywines, with its heavy, chunky barley flavor and sour wine components. But for a novice like myself, it was just not something I was ready for. Please note, this is a routinely fine brewery, and Mendocino/Saratoga’s Imperial IPA is a five-star brew.

Another stab at the style came from Stone, with their Old Guardian. Much like the Talon, the O.G. has a heavy grainy barley presence, with some sweet cherry and grape accents. And although all barleywines are high in alcohol, this one doesn’t hide it. It’s fizzy and thick and chewy. All told, it wasn’t an easy drinker for the likes of me. Again, I am more apt to blame my own nouveau riche palate rather than the folks at Stone, who know more about what they are brewing than I do about what I am drinking.

There are a couple of barleywines that I have enjoyed thoroughly, and though my opinion probably means very little to the learned barleywine enthusiast. I enjoyed the Clipper City Brewing Below Decks Barleywine from their Heavy Seas collection of stronger beers. This beer has a whiff of mild whiskey, and though it was slightly too skewed toward the cherry-sweet side in my opinion (as opposed to being offset by the malt balance), it was a very drinkable beer with a good, solid texture.

Possibly my favorite commercial barleywine is the Brooklyn Monster Ale, 2006-07 edition. The smell and taste are equally flirtatious, taking the best of cherry and grape notes and combining them with a calming, grounded yeast presence that adds both sweetness and texture. It has a real heavy bite, but in a good way.

Side note: The fact that the Monster Ale had been aged seemed to make quite a difference, in that it tamed the stronger, more abrasive flavors (like the sometimes cloying cherry) and brought out the best in the well-aged flavors (like the yeast). I’m not sure if all barleywines need to be aged to be enjoyed this much, but considering the two best barleywines I had had to date were well-aged, this might be the case.

I think that the best barleywine I have had thus far was one I had only a few weeks ago, at the charming Pittsfield Brew Works, where the Bees Knees Barleywine was on the ridiculously price-controlled beer menu. This beer was smooth and not at all grainy. The harshness of the malt was beautifully balanced by real honey (hence the name). It was probably the best dessert beer I’ve ever had, which is ironic because it’s not meant to be one. Javen and I also sampled the Berkshire Brewing Company’s Barleywine Ale and agreed that it was a fine specimen, although my specific memories of it escape me since it was well into the wee hours of the night and an “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” marathon. These things are bound to happen.

I know that I’m in the yellow-belt class of barleywine appreciation, but I’m looking forward to reading more of these session posts and getting some ideas, because although I still wouldn’t put barleywines up there with IPAs and Pub Ales just yet in my own personal rotation, I know that a good version can be transcendent.

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~ by William H on February 2, 2008.

One Response to “The Session: Barleywines”

  1. Oh that Empire beauty was glorious,enhanced by the fact that you had to know about it to get it. You should check on Super Tuesday and see what’s shakin’ under the street at the EBC. A solid session sport! Keep it up. Supposedly the Cambridge Brewing Company has some pretty solid barleywines, that I will have to look into and report on for our 5 loyal readers.

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