Brewing Big: Secrets for Successful Strong Styles

Here are six secrets to making your big boozy sipper a smashing success.

Dave Carpenter Jan 17, 2016 - 9 min read

Brewing Big: Secrets for Successful Strong Styles Primary Image

The new Session IPA category at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival featured 161 entries, making it the largest debut of any style category in the festival’s history. Clearly, we have a growing appreciation for flavorful styles that won’t knock us over. But let’s be honest. Sometimes we do want to be knocked over. And when that urge for a little fireside cheer strikes, one could do much worse than reach for a nicely aged barleywine. English or American, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s satisfying and decadent.

Brewing a barleywine does, however, require a bit more planning and finesse than brewing a Session IPA or an average-gravity ale. Here are some brewers’ secrets to making your barleywine a smashing success.

Simple Malt Bill

A great deal of malt goes into a barleywine grist, and the vast majority of it is base malt. We sometimes think of base malts as canvases upon which to drape specialty malts and hops, but the characteristics of the base malt become amplified in hearty styles such as barleywine. So take the time to seek out a flavorful base malt that has qualities that you’ll enjoy in concentration. Maris Otter and Golden Promise are two widely available base malts that work exceedingly well in British-style barleywine, but don’t overlook lesser known varietals such as Pearl, Optic, and Halcyon.

Good American barleywine can be built on generic pale malt, but it’s worth the effort to find a good pale-ale malt, which is usually kilned a little darker than your run-of-the mill 2-row. Most of the large malting companies now offer some kind of pale-ale malt, and the Craft Maltsters Guild maintains a list of craft maltings nationwide if it’s local flavor you seek.


Resist the temptation to barrage a barleywine grist with specialty malts. A little caramel malt is usually all that’s needed to add complexity, and even that is optional. A perfectly good barleywine can be brewed from a grist of 100 percent pale malt, so if in doubt, leave it out.

Hops Character

Good barleywine has the potential to improve with age for many, many years. But, as the label on every bottle of Pliny the Elder reminds us, hoppy beers are not meant to be aged. Thus, one challenge in brewing barleywine is to predict when the beer might reach its peak and hop accordingly.

Hops aroma and flavor compounds are the first to degrade, but the iso-alpha acids that are responsible for bitterness also lose potency over the years. Fal Allen and Dick Cantwell note in Barley Wine: History, Brewing Techniques, Recipes that “highly hopped beers tend to age better than less hopped beers for the first two to four years.” Beyond that, “less hopped beers…seem to fare better as the highly hopped beers begin to swing out of balance.” As with selecting malts, err on the side of simplicity because complex hops character may or may not end up complementing the beer you drink months or years after brew day.

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High-Gravity Concerns

Barleywines are big beers. The 2015 Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guide places the original gravities for both American and English barleywines in the 1.080–1.120 range, with corresponding alcohol concentrations of between 8 and 12 percent by volume. Gaining such lofty heights of gravity and strength can prove challenging for even the most experienced of brewers.

“A longer saccharifcation rest for old ales or barleywines can help with yeast attenuation,” notes Taylor Krantz, lead brewer for the Fort Collins Brewery, whose Oktoberfest won gold at this year’s Great American Beer Festival. The brewery’s Oldwyn Olde English Ale and Barnaby Barley Wine are part of its aptly named Malt Monsters series, a lineup of strong malt-forward beasts that are to malt as double IPAs are to hops.

Even with the long saccharification rest, expect mash efficiency to suffer. If your system normally comes in at 75 percent efficiency, assume it will drop to 60 to 65 percent when you’re mashing so much grain. Use brewing software to estimate the volume of the mash for various grist-to-water ratios, and make sure that your mash tun can hold it all, lest you experience a brew-day surprise. And all-grain, partial-mash, and extract brewers alike should keep some dry malt extract (DME) on hand, just in case the anticipated gravity comes up short.


Barleywines usually finish to a final gravity around 1.020–1.030, although there are certainly exceptions. The residual sugars add both sweetness and body to the finished product, but with these big beers, inadequate residual sugar is rarely a problem. Getting sufficient attenuation, however, is. A long mash rest is a good start, but ultimately, you need yeast on your side.


“When brewing higher ABV beers, you definitely want to pay extra attention to the yeast throughout the process,” Taylor says. “It is key to pitch a lot more yeast and to make sure the yeast is very healthy, along with providing more oxygen at the start of fermentation.”

In addition to pitching a large quantity of healthy, well-oxygenated yeast cells, you might need to take a few extra measures. If fermentation seems to stall well above the expected final gravity, you may have to physically rouse the yeast by gently swirling the carboy, warm the fermentation vessel, pitch additional yeast, or some combination of the above. In extreme cases, a Champagne yeast strain may be necessary to fully attenuate those last remaining gravity points, but doing so risks thinning the mouthfeel and weakening the overall impression of strength. Do so only as a last resort.

Aging and Oxidation

Making barleywine is certainly a challenge, but some would argue that the hardest part is waiting. Once your barleywine has been safely packaged in bottles or kegs, then begins the long, dark rite of self-control. The incredibly impatient would be advised to give these strong ales at least 4 to 6 months before sampling, but a year is almost always better. Distract yourself, hide your bottles, or sequester them in a climate-controlled storage unit, but resist the urge to open a barleywine prematurely.

A convenient way to pace yourself is to package in bottles of two different sizes, such as a mix of small European bottles (11.2 oz/33 ml) and bombers (22 oz/651 ml). Open a small bottle when you just can’t wait any longer and want to see how the beer is progressing and lay the large bottles down for a period of time to age. Alternatively, you could keg a portion of the batch and bottle the remainder, giving you some for now and some for later (or rather, some for later and some for much later).

If at First You Don’t Succeed

A key to brewing any beer well is to brew, taste, tweak, and repeat. This is much easier to do for low- and average-gravity ales that turn around in a few weeks than it is for a barleywine that can take a year or longer to develop. Therefore, good note taking and perseverance are critical to success.

To really nail barleywine means brewing big and brewing often. It means many sacks of grain and many years of patience. But when everything comes together, it also means many bottles of the finest ale the world has to offer, many memorable evenings, and many friends you never even knew you had.