How Anchorage’s Gabe Fletcher Packs Character into Barrel-Aged Barleywine

Aficionados view Gabe Fletcher of Alaska’s Anchorage Brewing as a master of modern barrel-aged barleywine, epitomized by the highly sought-after A Deal with the Devil. Here, he lays out his philosophy and methods developed over the years.

Gabe Fletcher Jun 13, 2022 - 15 min read

How Anchorage’s Gabe Fletcher Packs Character into Barrel-Aged Barleywine Primary Image

Photo: André Horton

I always had this way of trying to go big and figuring out how to make those beers work. Obviously, it didn’t always work out, but I think from the failures come successes. There have been plenty of failures over the years with barleywines. I’ve actually struggled with them a lot.

On Malt and … Decoction?

Malt-wise for us, it’s English Marris Otter or any of those floor-malted two-rows. Keeping it simple, not putting a ton of different grains in—that’s just the way I do it. One or two grains, and a lot of it! For the second malt, it’s some kind of crystal malt, just to add a little bit of depth. You could go anywhere—high or low crystal, or some kind of character malt. It’s pretty small—maybe like 3 to 5 percent specialty malt. It’s just nuance, not for color. You’re getting most of your color from the boil. Maris Otter on its own is dark enough, especially at that volume.

I don’t care what size brewhouse you have. If anybody asks me about a recipe, I just say, “Put as much grain as you can fit into your mash tun.” That’s your malt bill. If you have a 10-barrel system, build up the grain until it’s about to come out the door—that’s the measurement.

Don’t sparge—or if you do sparge, do very little. Anything you’re sparging is just upping your boil time, and all you’re doing is diluting what you already have there. So, I don’t sparge.


One thing I was thinking about the other day was starting to do single-decoction mashes on some of these barleywines, just to see what complexities I can add to it. I don’t know why I never have, but it seems like it would add a lot. We do it on our Czech pils, and it adds a really nice malty character. You get the whole Maillard reaction. With a barleywine, you’re doing that already by boiling it for hours on end, but I think if you boiled some of the grain and then did a single-infusion mash—dough in at 148°F (64°C), let it rest for an hour, decoct enough to bring it up to 170°F (77°C), mix it, let it rest, and do your whole runoff after that. I’ve never done it, and it’s literally because I never even thought about doing it. I may have to give that a shot here pretty soon.

On the Long Boil and Hops

We boil to gravity, and the time depends on the air pressure. If it’s a high-pressure day, it’s a long day because your evaporation rate goes way down. It can really add four hours to the day. It doesn’t allow the steam to escape as easy. People talk about, “Oh, I had to boil for six hours.” That’s the easiest day ever!

With hops, I don’t like to go over 35 IBUs. It’s really low. I do put in a little at the end, but very little. We do a little shot at the end of the boil, in the whirlpool.

Most people would use an English hop, or maybe Magnum, or something really neutral. But that isn’t really adding to the character of it—it’s just balancing with a touch of bitterness. For these beers, I like something with fruity character, more tropical. We’ve always used Galaxy hops. Those fruity characters lend to the end-product because they accentuate all those dark-fruit characters you’re getting from the fermentation and the grains. It’s subtle, but I think it’s a nice blend.


On Fermentation

Barleywines have always been tricky to ferment, and I’m always trying to figure out new ways to do that. My most successful way has been feeding them: I’ll do a yeast starter big enough for 30 barrels of beer. By the next day, that starter is big enough for 60 barrels—its cell count doubles in a day. It’s ready for that big hit of sugar. I’ll brew the first batch on to that—about eight barrels of barleywine wort at 37°P (1.164). Then it just takes off hot and heavy, and by the next day it’s dropped about 12°P—you’re looking at a 25°P (1.106) beer. Then you brew your second batch onto that. It’s a little bit different every time, but doing it this way puts a lot less pressure on the yeast.

I have tried enzymes, but I haven’t been really happy with the esters that come out of it for barleywines—it gives them a really strange sort of character. For yeast, I’ve always used BSI-28 Scottish Ale. It’s a really strong fermenter, and it kicks off a little bit of fruity character, but I think that lends to the beer over that long aging period.

Post-fermentation, we usually shoot for 10–14°P (1.040–1.057), somewhere in there. Even when the beer ferments down that low, you still get a ton of sweetness. Before going into barrels, the lower the better—and we’ve been trying to drive that number down over the past few years. Now we’re getting down around 10°P (1.040), and I’m happier. By going lower, I think the beer tastes better sooner. You don’t have to age it for quite as long.

Overall, don’t try to go too big just because you want to make a big beer unless you know you can ferment it out—because once it gets stuck, it’s almost impossible.


However, there are some tricks to getting it unstuck. If you try to ferment out a big barleywine like ours and get stuck at 20°P or 24°P (1.083 or 1.101), one way to help is to get another big yeast starter going and use some of that. I’ve used Fermentis SafBrew HA-18 (which includes glucoamylase enzymes) before just to help with this. I’ll use the yeast starter like I would normally start the beer and transfer the whole beer on top of that the next day, when it’s just fermenting like crazy. A lot of times, that’ll take it down to where it needs to go.

On Barrel-Aging

One of the big tricks of producing these beers is double- or triple-oaking because it adds alcohol to the beer. I don’t like to single-oak. It’s okay, but I think it needs more time. Even if I age barleywine for just a year, I’ll age it for six months, then I’ll throw it into another barrel for another six months. It adds character. Besides the alcohol pickup, it’s more fresh wood on the beer, and maybe a small trace of oxygen, just from the transfer.

People get really excited about some of these really old barrels, but at the end of the day, there’s not a lot of character in them. They’re stripped out. All that’s left is that spirit, and you’re lucky if you get a wet old barrel. But if you get a dry old barrel, that’s the worst.

I use a lot of double-oak-bourbon barrels—that is, it was the second barrel for a bourbon. It’s the best of both worlds because you’ve taken this bourbon that’s been aged for four, six, eight years, and then you put it into a fresh barrel for just one year, and then you empty it. So, you’re getting this fresh oak plus old bourbon inside—it’s the best flavor combination. You get the most impact. Those are some of my favorite barrels to find.


We do it differently all the time. We’ll take it over into Buffalo Trace, Weller, or whatever we can get our hands on. All of them add awesome layers. We haven’t done Cognac in a long time—the very first and second batches of A Deal with the Devil were just Cognac barrel, but I’ve always struggled with the quality of those barrels and had issues with them leaking. So I strayed away from them, and we started moving into bourbon barrels and double-oaking. But I’ve been thinking about experimenting with them again. So, you might see some more Cognac in the future. We did do a box set—that was rum, apple brandy, Cognac, and double oak. That was a fun experiment. I’ve been seeing a few brewers come out with similar packages—Kyle Harrop from Horus Aged Ales, some of what he did recently.

On Improvising with Barrel-Aged Beer

Some barleywines go into the barrels with a plan. We make a beer call Wendigo—it’s a black barleywine, and double-oaked. I love that beer. It’s a very simple recipe. That is one that goes in, we have a plan, and we execute it. But A Deal with the Devil has been changing for years. The recipe has always been the same, but the processes change; we take it in different directions. So almost nothing goes in with a plan because we can’t always say, “Oh, the beer is going to turn out this way.” Or I might be inspired by something and want to try something new. I always try to keep everything open and roll with it.

When we brew a batch of A Deal with the Devil, we generally throw it into different barrels, or all one set of barrels, and then we double-oak into something else. We might even triple-oak into something else—it takes about two years to do triple oak.

We also hold some back in kegs. So, let’s say we’re going to do a double-oak batch. We fill all the barrels up that we’d normally do. Over time, you’re going to have loss on all those barrels. I don’t know exactly how much they lose. I usually just look into the barrel, and I’m like, “Oh, we lost about five gallons.” Then, when we go to double oak, we’ll transfer into the empty barrels, but we’ll top them off, so that the new barrels are totally full. We’ll end up with maybe 15 gallons, or even two kegs of beer that we couldn’t use, and we’ll set that aside and let it age in stainless. Then, when we go to triple oak, we’ll take those two kegs and use that as our top-off. One of the hard parts about doing double or triple oak is that you have to get the barrel full, so that it doesn’t end up too oxidized.


One of our most famous batches of A Deal with the Devil, I threw it into a whiskey barrel—it was when we first started, so I was doing Brett everything. For that barleywine, I was like, “I’m going to throw some Brett in here, just to see what happens.” Then I let that cask age for two years—honestly, I just forgot about it. We were moving into our new facility when I found it. I opened the bunghole just to look in there and see—there was no pellicle and the Brett didn’t do anything to it, but it aged beautifully. And then we packaged it. That’s the one batch that everyone tries to buy for, like $2,500. But I put Brett culture into it. I don’t think we ever let it out. Some people maybe heard about it. Now, some people think I actually use Brett in A Deal with the Devil.

On Flavor Adjuncts in Barleywine

Adding adjuncts is a slippery slope, and people are pretty sensitive about it—“You can’t put adjuncts in barleywines!” And they get really upset about it. So, I was kind of dipping my toe in it.

At first, I was going to do a coconut one—then I realized how much beer I would lose to the coconut. It was too big a loss. I couldn’t do it. I mean, the absorption from coconut is just insane. On 40 barrels of a big beer, we would lose 10 to 25 percent in absorption just because of the sheer volume of coconut we’re using.

So, I decided to try the vanilla, but we didn’t do very much—it was about a quarter-pound (113 grams) per barrel. We kept a close eye on it because I didn’t want it to take over the beer. I just wanted it to be subtle, like it’s building upon the vanilla characters in the oak. I just wanted to add some complexity and try something new and have a new variant for people to try.


Now, we have stock of all these different beers and barleywines, and lately we’ve been doing some barleywine–imperial stout blends with adjuncts. Those have allowed us to amp up some of those characters without tarnishing the A Deal with the Devil brand.

On Carbonation

We always hit 2.2 volumes. I find that when people try to get them too high, the fizziness really messes with the mouthfeel. Too low, and it’s just flat. I know some brewers have been releasing a few still barleywines. They’re okay. I think Cory King at Side Project did the best job, but the beer has to be frickin’ awesome to begin with. If it’s not an awesome beer, the lack of carbonation is going to make it even worse. So, I think you need a little bit of carbonation, and the 2.2 volumes adds a really creamy texture.

Parting Thought

I would say, “Don’t try to do what I do,” but you can use these guidelines to do your own thing. Have fun with it!

As told to Jamie Bogner.