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Barleywine Designed for the Occasion

Cambridge Brewing Company’s brewmaster recounts the development of their beer that quite literally puts the “wine” in “barleywine.”

Will Meyers 3 months ago

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Brewing a barleywine with grapes, you say? To create Arquebus—our blonde barleywine—we reverse-engineered the beer. The backstory is that CBC’s Founder Phil “Brewdaddy” Bannatyne came into the brewery one hot August day, and we chatted about his weekend—the highlight of which was a fun dinner at a friend’s house that culminated in a very tasty Sauternes. We discussed how there was essentially nothing in the beer world that suited the desire for a sweet, medium-alcohol, fruity dessert wine. After all, on a hot and humid summer night in Boston, one doesn’t naturally gravitate toward a barrel-aged barleywine or imperial stout, or a Belgian quadruple or double IPA. So we set about to create the dessert beer that would fix that.

We started with a base of several blended Pilsner malts—for “simple” grists on my single-infusion brewhouse we get a lot of pale-malt depth by combining several different Pilsner or pale malts—to create a pale wort of just over 20° Plato (1.083 SG). Sauternes, Tokaji, and other late-harvest wines that benefit from Botrytis cinerea present a particular honeyed character that we mimicked via the use of some hyperlocal honey. The hives were kept inside Boston and Cambridge so the character of the honey from these largely urban bees was incredibly complex and intense. We added the raw honey directly to the fermentor at about 50 percent attenuation for the first few batches, but we now add the honey into the whirlpool to pasteurize without boiling off all the terrific aromatics.

Initially, we didn’t achieve the wine-like flavors we really wanted (the beer was very braggot-y), so we next incorporated white-wine grapes, which we crushed and pressed. The must was added to used white-wine barrels along with a malolactic culture, and the beer was racked on top as it neared its finish. This extra addition of simple sugars right at the end gives the yeast a little junk-food burst of activity. Once the specific gravity gets down below 10° Plato (1.040 SG) we add a wine or champagne yeast to help with the last bit of fermentation, as this beer regularly pushes into the 13–14 percent ABV range. The original grape varieties we used were Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc, but now we mix up the grapes a little every year.

I like using Semillon when I can get good fruit, as it’s the classic base grape in Sauternes, and Viognier, in particular, offers great high fruity and floral notes which really lift the aromatics. The grape must ferments pretty cleanly and actually lightens the body a bit, keeping it from becoming a malt bomb.

Despite the beer presenting rather dry and balanced, it has a very high level of residual sweetness. We try to dry it out as best we can but it’s a monster, often finishing as high as 7° Plato (1.028 SG). We benefit from the oak tannins adding perceived dryness, along with the beer’s formidable alcohol content. The high residual sugar contributes to its body, of course, and a light contribution from the oak offers nice toasted coconut and vanillin notes, which couple with the complexity contributed by controlled oxidation from six to ten months in the wood.

At our annual CBC Barleywine Festival each January, we offer sixteen different expressions of the three barleywines we brew each year, and Arquebus always stays pretty balanced with honey and wine character trading places through the years. Unlike our winter barleywine, Blunderbuss, Arquebus never really picks up too much sherry or madeira character but rather presents as clean with nice elegance developing through the years. The oldest we’ve served at Barleywine Fest was just over ten years old, and it held up beautifully!

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