Dreaming Big with Weirdwines

Barleywines and wheatwines explore the boldest flavor frontiers of their respective grains. Now, daring brewers are applying that maximalist approach to wine-strength beers brewed with millet, rye-wheat hybrids, smoked malts, and more.

Kate Bernot Apr 29, 2024 - 14 min read

Dreaming Big with  Weirdwines Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves

Barleywines are brewers’ time capsules. With their full flavor, rich texture, and aging potential, barleywines preserve the complexity of their ample malt components for years to come. The same can be said for wheatwines—interpretations of American-style wheat beers taken to an indulgent extreme.

Yet a skilled brewer can push almost any grain to the “-wine” threshold. In recent years, intrepid brewers have been exploring the outer reaches of this malty universe, jamming their mash tuns full of local six-row, millet, hybrid rye-wheat malt, crystal, or oak-smoked wheat, among others.

Of course, there are technical hurdles. Brewers want to keep the mash from turning to concrete, and sugars in the resulting wort must be accessible to yeast. Therefore, these brawny brews require close attention to recipe-building as well as to mashing, sparging, and fermentation techniques. But brewers say the resulting juice is worth the squeeze. Often, these “weirdwines” are the first of their kinds, offering the deepest possible dive into the flavors and textures of a particular grain or malt.

“If you’ve got an interesting idea for a grain bill, to use a lot of it in a barleywine-style makes sense,” says Matthew Riggs, owner and brewer at Riggs Beer in Urbana, Illinois. “There’s no other beer style where the grain-to-water ratio is this much in favor of the grain.”


Riggs would know. His brewery uses the estate-grown grains from the nearby farm that’s been in his family for five generations. Those grains include six-row barley, which he turned into barleywines in 2016, 2018, and 2019, before a tough barley crop forced a pivot to wheatwine in 2020.

The expression of those local grains, Riggs says, reaches its platonic ideal in a “-wine” beer. “It’s the closest I can get to being an old Kentucky farmer making whiskey to preserve the value of the grain while holding a federal brewer’s permit and being prohibited from distilling,” he says.

Here, brewers share their best practices for brewing big with not-so-mainstream malts.

Dreaming Beyond Barley

Despite the obvious novelty of producing a new take on barleywine, it’s not gimmickry that’s motivating brewers. Instead, it’s a reverence or curiosity about these particular grains and how they might express themselves as the dominant ingredient in high-strength beers.


“They open you up to a whole new world of flavors,” says Reid Ackerman, head brewer at Seattle’s Ghostfish Brewing. “There’s so much within these different grains and different malts within those grains.”

Ghostfish is a gluten-free brewery. It celebrated its eighth anniversary last year not with a barleywine, but an analogous beer brewed with millet—an ancient grain, free of gluten, often grown in warmer, drier climates. In brewing, millet malt generally produces a beer with a thinner texture than one brewed with barley malt. Using 100 percent millet for the grist of the eighth-anniversary milletwine resulted in a surprisingly light, “bloat-free” beer, Ackerman says, despite its almost 13 percent ABV.

He urges brewers to experiment with the grain even if they’re not sensitive to gluten, perhaps starting with it as a portion of the grist for a barleywine. “The possible permutations there are out of this world,” he says. At Lumberbeard Brewing in Spokane, Washington, it was locally malted triticale (pronounced “trih-tuh-KAY-lee”) that intrigued president and head brewer Bret Gordon.

Triticale is a wheat-rye hybrid that Spokane maltster LINC Malt offers as either a pale or Munich malt. Gordon liked the soft texture and rye-like prickle that triticale brought to dark lagers and stouts. So, in April 2022, he brewed the beefy, 14.5 percent ABV Tritception triticalewine. Its grist was 55 percent triticale and 45 percent pale malted barley. Then, he aged that beer in a triticale whiskey barrel from Spokane distillery Dry Fly, achieving a completely local expression of the grain’s potential.


“This beer was honestly one of the best-tasting beers that we’ve ever put into a barrel, pre-aging,” Gordon says. “It was so unique and different from anything I’d done before. It was very fresh-bread-forward, but kind of like cinnamon bread, despite having no adjuncts in it.”

Seattle’s Machine House Brewery also was inspired by triticale. When brewer Justin Moran found a crystal malt version of triticale from the now-closed Skagit Valley Malting, they decided to use it in a barleywine-esque beer. As an English-style brewery, Machine House already was using crystal malt in many of its beers. Crystal-malted triticale felt equal parts familiar and innovative.

“I thought it would be really interesting to make something that’s very Machine House,” Moran says, “but also has a toe in this more contemporary ryewine/wheatwine territory, while still doing something that’s unique.”

The Enzyme Question

Barley has been humans’ preferred brewing grain for 10,000 years; usefully, it contains the diastatic enzymes necessary to convert grains’ starches into sugars. In non-barley grains, those enzymes can appear at lower levels or be absent entirely. Therefore, brewers need to supply adequate levels of amylase enzymes. They can do this either by including barley malt as a portion of the recipe, by adding enzymes to the mash directly, or by a combination of both. At Ghostfish, they add exogenous enzymes to all their gluten-free beers, including the milletwine.


“Folks say you can get away with 20 percent, up into the realm of 40 percent” gluten-free grains in a recipe, Ackerman says. “Beyond that, you’ll want to consider adding a little enzyme.”

Concerns about diastatic power were also on Brad Clark’s mind. As the founder of Private Press Brewing in Santa Cruz, California, Clark is responsible for coining the term “Munichwine” in 2020 to describe a subset of barleywines he makes with mainly Munich malt. Notably, Clark uses 10 percent Maris Otter or Golden Promise in his Munichwines, calling them “an insurance policy” to ensure efficient conversion. That small slice of the grist serves three purposes: It aids in diastatic conversion, it creates a layered grain bill, and it connects Munichwine to its traditional barleywine roots. The rest of the grist, he says, is 70 percent Munich malt and 20 percent oats or caramel, chocolate, or honey malt.

To add to the brewing considerations, huskless grains such as rye, millet, and wheat also make mashes sticky and difficult. Even with a grist of 45 percent pale barley malt, Lumberbeard’s triticalewine required a dose of beta-glucanase. Gordon brewed the beer over the course of two days; it was so clear from the first day’s sticky mash that more water and a dose of the enzyme were sorely needed to aid with runoff on Day Two.

At Machine House, ensuring proper runoff was even more complicated. Moran wanted a mash big enough to brew an English-style mild off the second runnings of the triticalewine. With such a packed mash tun, and at 40 percent triticale, he was even more worried than usual about a stuck mash—so, he added enzymes to aid the lautering. Despite the 14-hour brew day, Moran says he’d go even bigger on the non-barley portion next time.


“It gave it this soft, pillowy texture in the finished beer, and it’s got some dark fruit and almost nutty flavors, like almond and macadamia nut,” he says. “I’d maybe want to experiment with more triticale in the mash. We could go even crazier next time if we wanted.”

Consider the Sugar

Flavorful, highly fermentable sugars can be a useful tool for brewers building out their off-kilter grainwines. Machine House’s barleywines (and its triticalewine) benefit from invert sugars.
Sugars are also a part of the otherwise all-crystal-malt barleywines that owner Kyle Harrop produces for Horus Aged Ales, based in Oceanside, California. He calls them CrystAles. His inspiration? “A lot of people hate on crystal malt, so it kind of ignited a flame in me,” he says.

Harrop adds brown sugar and Belgian candi syrup, feeding both daily to the fermenting beer in tanks. “They really need to be helped along because it’s not the easiest grain to ferment,” he says. “I would say the number one thing I learned was getting it going at the speed I needed it to, with a pretty heavy sugar addition at the beginning of fermentation. The recent one I did get down to 8° Plato [~1.032], which is what I’m looking for.”

Harrop’s first CrystAle brew in early 2019 was his lowest in terms of alcohol content, clocking in at 7.8 percent ABV before it hit barrels. His latter versions have been stronger and sweeter, thanks to the addition of one jug of D-45 amber Belgian candi syrup per 10-barrel batch.


“All that character, especially from double-roasted crystal—which is probably my favorite malt in the world—really does shine through, and you get this Werther’s Original toffee character to the beer,” he says. “That’s what I hope for. By the time they go into the barrel, I’m waiting for that spirit character to pop and balance out that sweetness.”

At Machine House, Moran enjoys what invert sugars can bring to their barleywines and triticalewine—so much so that the brewery makes its own invert sugar, spending half a day boiling it. Moran describes its mature character as a complex, brown sugar–caramel note combined with some fruitiness.

“The invert sugar almost has this green-apple flavor to it, but as that ages in the finished beer, it transforms into a … darker dried-fruit character,” he says. “Using invert sugars would have been common for turn-of-the-19th-century English breweries; they’d use sugars versus using a lot of malt to save money. But we like the way it tastes in an aged beer.”

Balancing the Booze

As with any successful “imperial” beer, high levels of grain sweetness and alcohol in barleywine-type beers ought to be balanced with other elements. This requires a brewer to approach a recipe thoughtfully—and, sometimes, to be flexible enough to adjust.


For example: Harrop says that the fast-fermenting simple sugars in his CrystAles mean that those beers absolutely require barrel aging. The first CrystAle he brewed—called My Crystale Ball—tasted “very astringent and acrid” to him out of the tank, before aging. It also finished around 7.8 percent ABV before hitting barrels for three years; today, his CrystAles finish around 10 to 11 percent and taste in line with his expectations after a year in barrels.

Even the country that invented barleywine isn’t above some experimentation. At Torrside Brewing in High Peak, Derbyshire, England, it’s not sugars but smoke that the brewers are concerned with balancing in imperial form.

Torrside—which hosts a smoked-beer festival every September—has found a niche with rauchwines and smoked wheatwines. Brewer Peter Sidwell says the brewery has learned to adjust recipes based on the wood used to smoke the malts; oak-smoked malts typically create a drier character in the final beer, for example, than beech-smoked malts. He’s also learned to increase the percentage of smoked malts in an imperial version of a rauchbier, rather than dialing it back; Torrside’s rauchwines can include up to 75 percent smoked malt.

“People are generally surprised by how unaggressive it is,” Sidwell says. “Even if you have someone who doesn’t particularly like smoked beers, it’s easier to get them into the imperial version than the normal, 4 [to] 5 percent rauchbier. … Bear in mind that the higher the final gravity is, the less you’ll detect the smoke. The sweetness mellows out the smoke.”

Though they’re successful in and of themselves, barleywine-style beers can also make for wonderful blending stock. At Private Press, Clark says that Munichwine is now always a part of his benchtop blending trials; he’s found it works beautifully alongside Belgian-style quads, stouts, and barleywines. He wonders aloud about its potential synergies with porters and Scotch ales.

“There seems to be an elevated unctuousness,” he says. “It seems rounder, and it just sits slightly different on the palate, so it plays well with others. It has this older-world German quality to it, so it brings some of that European flair, if you will. If someone’s barrel cellar is centered around blending, Munichwine can be a really fun tool to have available.”

Whether as stand-alone brews or as part of a blending program, weirdwines are the logical terminus for a brewer’s obsession with a particular malt. The only constraints are the variety of fermentable grains out there—and the size of your mash tun.