Strong ales aren’t for everyone. As ABV increases, so too does the risk of things going wrong, and even if everything in the brewing and fermenting process goes according to plan, you can still run into an aggressive flavor profile that might turn “enjoying” into “work.” Sure, some people really groove to an intense flavor and/or want a beer that drinks more like after-dinner brandy than something you’d sip while watching a soccer match, but for those who don’t necessarily want a tongue-peeling barrel-aged imperial stout or a fruit-and-alcohol Belgian Strong Ale riot, you should consider brewing an English Barleywine. Rich and bready but never sweet and hot, the English Barleywine is the beer-drinking equivalent of eating warm biscuits straight out of the oven.
In short, the English Barleywine is a showcase of malt flavor at high ABV but without substantial contribution of flavor from the alcohols. It gives an impression of fullness but not thickness and should never be syrupy or sweet. Beyond that, there’s a surprising amount of room for interpretation. Hops shouldn’t be a prominent feature (and even if they are at the start, they’ll usually fall out as extended aging moves along), and the yeast can add some subtle fruit characters, but this is malt’s show.
This is also a beer that is particularly (and unsurprisingly) English. I’ll often recommend authentic English malts in recipes, but that’s just because I think they offer a good, consistent flavor intensity and profile. In this case, I’m recommending them because they contribute so much to the character of the beer that using non-English malts will be a serious detriment. Once, just to test, I brewed two batches that differed only in the relatively small crystal malt additions and was shocked at the difference in the finished product. It was still good, but clearly diminished. Even if it means sneaking behind the back of your local homebrew shop, source yourself some authentic English malts here. If you don’t, you’ll struggle to get the kind of malt complexity and flavor texture that you’ll need!
This version of English Barleywine is heavy on the light malt flavors and is less fruity than some examples, though over time you start to develop a subtle dried mango flavor that complements the bready, grainy malt quite well.
Begin with 16 pounds (7.25 kg) of Maris Otter, as a base. Especially in a beer that’s going to age for (literally) years, fresh and authentic malts are key here, so be a little pushy at the shop and make sure you’ve got an acceptably fresh bag from a fresh shipment; otherwise oxidation of the product itself will catch up with you. Maris does great things as a base malt, and at this intensity it comes through more like a richer Munich malt than its standard grainy base. To this we add one pound (454 g) each of two superficially similar but perceptually different specialty malts, both from Fawcett: 45L (Crystal I) malt and Amber malt. Although they share a Lovibond level (both are around 40), the difference in their production gives them distinct flavors. Whereas the crystal adds typical caramel-toffee flavors, the Fawcett Amber malt adds a dry near-roasty flavor that, given time to mellow, comes across as a kind of smoked caramel. Your OG should land somewhere around 1.100 (probably just a shade under), giving you roughly double-digit ABV.
Hopping doesn’t need to be complicated, and truth be told my later hops addition is probably redundant given the aging protocol for this beer, but I do it anyway. Add 35 IBUs from a 60-minute addition using any hop you like. For fun, try to get hold of Phoenix—in addition to being a healthy 10% AA, it may add a lingering light cocoa flavor! No promises, though, as I’ve used it twice but that flavor only showed up once. Then add one ounce (28 g) of East Kent Goldings at 30 minutes. That should yield about 50 IBUs.
Finally, use a classic English yeast strain: Wyeast 1028 (London Ale) is a good choice that gives you plenty of attenuation and a nice berry ester.
That much malt might tax your mash tun, but don’t sweat it too much if your mash is on the thick side: peer-reviewed research finds that thicker mashes yield a more fermentable wort, which is actually a plus here. Mash at the usual 152°F (67°C), and move on to the boil.
Extended boils are common in English Barleywine, but I don’t do them anymore, for lack of noticeable difference. However, if you do, be sure to adjust your volume and gravities so that you don’t finish with an inflated starting gravity.
The key here is a big, healthy yeast pitch and a cold fermentation, especially initially. We want to minimize off-flavors and promote attenuation, so a cool 60°F (15°C) start that ramps up about halfway through fermentation is best. This will also prevent fusel alcohol formation, which is a stake through the heart in this beer style.
Then, once the beer is finished, crash the temperature, carbonate to about 1.5 volumes of CO2, and then put it away for at least six months. I’ve reviewed the competition scoring data for this beer over several versions and several years, and they steadily improve to about 14 months, then hold steady until the three-year mark. After three years, things start going wonky, but 12–36 months is the wonderfully broad sweet spot. It’s drinkable before that, but it takes time for the malt profile to fully resolve. Age cold or at room temperature.
We don’t normally lean on age in beer: the younger the better, in most cases. English Barleywine is a significant exception. I brew this beer in cycles and then ration the output to just 2–3 bombers per year. Do whatever you need to do to avoid drinking this too fast: hide it, put it in a safe with a time lock, store it at your vacation cabin so you can only access it a couple of times per year, etc. It’ll be worth it, I promise!
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