In case you missed it, I’m a fan of not beating yourself up when it comes to brewing. If there’s a pitfall waiting for me out there, I set myself up to avoid it in several ways. Guardrails, you know?
Well, when it comes to American barleywine, the biggest danger, by a mile, is getting either an under-attenuated, cloying mess—or, conversely, getting a hot, fusel-rich, alcoholic burner. Given its ABV and aging requirements, these are pretty obvious. Yeast strain and fermentation process are, therefore, highly significant here, which is why I’m always surprised when people are surprised when I tell them that my American barleywine is—gasp—a lager.
Fair warning: This is a challenging style. If this is one of your first, say, ten beers brewed, move on and come back in about six months. Hmm. Come to think of it, “come back in about six months” is also good advice for brewing this beer!
American barleywine is often described as an American interpretation of English barleywine, which is technically true, though it isn’t very instructive. A better approach is to think of American barleywine as a variant on imperial IPA. Both are high in alcohol. Both feature significant bitterness and hops character. Knowing the difference between the styles, though, helps you avoid making a sort-of IPA, and that principal distinction is in the role of malt. Unlike the imperial IPA, American barleywine features a “strong, intense malt flavor” which, to my palate, is more reminiscent of Eisbock than anything else. The interplay between the strong grainy pale malt flavors and the higher alcohols is balanced by slightly stronger bitterness and background (as opposed to foreground, as in the imperial IPA) of clear American hops flavors.
This should be a thick, malty, hoppy, bitter, high-alcohol beer. Age adds even more complexity. I brew this beer in cycles, along with my English barleywine, every four years (like the Olympics), and then ration the bottles to force myself to age it. It’s worth it.
Since we’re getting “atypical” flavors in this from oxidized alcohols—and since it will get naturally richer over time, I don’t like to add a bunch of character malts to this grist. A little faith and age will get you there, and unlike in my Old Ale, I don’t like to “cheat” and “specialty malt” my way into complexity here. Why? It’s hard to fake the kind of slowly integrated flavor profile you get from a lot of hops that are aging off but still present. I’m afraid we just need to do this one the old-fashioned way.
Start with 10 pounds (4.5 kg) each of Maris Otter and Vienna malts. “Wait, I thought this was American barleywine?” It is, but its “American-ness” comes from its roof-scraping ABV and not-quite-palate-scraping bitterness and classic American hops. Trust me. You’ll want the flavor you get out of these base malts (bread from the Maris Otter, a touch of spice from the Vienna) compared to American 2-row. Ordinarily this might be when I mention Victory or Biscuit or Melanoidin malt to add rich malt flavors, but we’re going to skip those here. Why? Because they can add an impression of sweetness that I find counterproductive (which is why we’re skipping the light crystals, too). Instead, jump straight to 1 pound (454 g) of Crystal 60 and 0.5 pound (227 g) of Crystal 80. We’ll get plenty of sweetness from the alcohols, and frankly this style is so much better when it’s on the drier side of the scale.
Before we get to hopping, also add 1 pound (454 g) of table sugar. It, too, will help dry out the beer. Your target OG is a psychologically satisfying 1.111, and this recipe really pushes my mash tun to its limit. If necessary, dial back the base grains and add a good liquid extract to make up for the lost gravity, but mash as much as you possibly can.
Hops are, likewise, more impressive in scale than in diversity. Find the cleanest (low-cohumulone), highest alpha-acid percentage hops you can, and add a straight 100 IBUs’ worth to the top of the boil. For my money, German Magnum is best. You want to minimize your plant material (it can add vegetal flavors) and smooth out your bitterness. [Note to self: This might be a good opportunity to test out bittering extracts!] Then add 2 ounces (57 g) each of your two favorite American aroma hops at five minutes remaining (I’m partial to Amarillo and Northern Brewer—the stone fruit and cedar give a wonderful “mature” but definitely American character).
Last, as noted, I like a lager yeast here—Wyeast 2206 Bavarian Lager, to be precise. Why? It makes for a good, clean, malty-but-not-sweet beer. Never mind the vital stats on its ABV range; it can handle this.
This beer is a bundle of contradictions. We want a full, rich beer that’s malty but not overly sweet and that allows hops to shine, but only to balance the flavors. Recipe is important, but we’ll need process to do its part, too.
Mash low. Hold your mash at 149°F (65°C) for 90 minutes to generate lots of fermentable sugars, and lauter/sparge slowly to get as much out of this mash as you can—you can adjust with extract, but the more you get out of the grist, the better. And lest you worry that we’ll get a beer that’s too thin—what with the table sugar and the low mash temperature—don’t worry about it: there’s going to be plenty of body left from the sheer bulk of long-chain unfermentables, even with the high ratio of short-chainers.
Boil long (90 minutes) to develop color and flavor.
Ferment cool (52°F/11°C) and long (6 weeks) and steady. More than most beers, stable fermentation temperature is vital here; otherwise you’ll have yeast cells that call it quits and/or kick off lots of off-flavors.
Carbonate to two volumes—and, believe it or not, I’ve never found any need to add fresh yeast to bottle condition. It might take a week or two longer, but the yeast is more than up to the job.
And, finally, age this beer for at least 6 months at cellar temps before opening the first bottle (if you start now, you may be able to crack the first bottle for the holidays), then transfer to cold storage when it hits your sweet spot. It will keep for more than 4 years (as I accidentally found out when I misplaced two bottles and found them 5 years into their aging cycle! Still awesome).
Barleywine takes time and trust. Tasting as you go will probably not make you too happy (the wort is delicious—the mid-process beer, not so much). Wait it out. The excess bitterness will round off. The heat will die down (if you’ve fermented properly). The malts will come forward. The sherry flavors will brighten up. It’s more than worth the wait.
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