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No Rests for the Wicked: Barleywine, Done Briskly

Whether English or American or breaking new ground, barleywines are the Cadillacs of the ale world. Can you brew a great one with extracts? Of course you can. Annie Johnson breaks it down in our ongoing series on extract-brewing exceptional beers.

Annie Johnson May 25, 2021 - 7 min read

No Rests for the Wicked: Barleywine, Done Briskly Primary Image

Photos: Matt Graves/mgravesphoto.com

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Barleywine is the MacDaddy of beers, right up there in might with Russian imperial stout and wheatwine. Often the strongest ale on offer, this supremely malt-focused style tends to be the special-occasion jewel in any brewer’s collection—rich, ponderous, and built to last.

Traditionally, brewers used only the earliest runnings of their mashes to brew barleywine. Does that mean you need an actual mash tun to brew a good one? Nope.

Before we get into the nuts of bolts of how to extract-brew a barleywine to be proud of, it helps to take a look at what makes the style tick.

Barleywine 101

Generally, barleywine comes in two distinct styles—English and American—though inevitably there are hybrids and others that seem to walk their own path.

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The English-style version places less emphasis on hops, tends to be fruiter (often yeast-driven), and emphasizes deep malt character, with rich caramel and nutty flavors. Believe it or not, you can achieve that malt depth with only one or two malt varieties, making barleywines more than suitable for extract or mini-mash brews. Longer boil times lead to intense flavor development, making this high-octane ale an excellent winter warmer or cold-weather sipper. Characterful English hops such as East Kent Goldings and Fuggles help to balance out the malt’s sweetness.

The American-style counterpart, meanwhile, emphasizes hops and bitterness to check the intense alcohol. Piney and citrusy hops from the Pacific Northwest lend aroma, flavor, and bitterness. A big charge of high-alpha hops such as Warrior or CTZ will do for bittering, followed by late additions of aroma/flavor hops such as Simcoe, Cascade, or Amarillo.

Both styles are wide open to interpretations when it comes to color and strength. Both tend to exhibit a rich, full mouthfeel of velvety and luscious textures—downright chewy. Their exceptional strengths range from 8 to 12 percent ABV, or more in some cases (as with many barrel-aged versions).

Not sure which style of barleywine to brew? There is an easy and delicious way to decide: Grab a few commercial versions of each from your local beer shop. While browsing, keep an eye out for the word “Old”—a quasi-traditional naming scheme that alludes to a traditional type of beer that also keeps for years. Some of my favorite American versions you might like to try are Anchor Old Foghorn, AleSmith Old Numbskull, and, of course, Bigfoot Barleywine from Sierra Nevada. English varieties include Robinsons Old Tom, Fuller’s Golden Pride, and Burton Bridge Thomas Sykes Old Ale. The style has fallen somewhat out of fashion lately, but with luck, you might also find some great locally brewed versions that might or might not fit the American-or-British rubric.

Barleywines are meant to be savored, not gulped. I particularly enjoy them in the wintertime, later in the day, when all my daily tasks and chores are complete.

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Barleywine Tips

Long boils produce more color, higher gravity, and more intense flavor. One trick for achieving these traits, if you can’t boil a full batch, is to draw off one gallon of wort and boil it down to about one pint, then add it back to the main boil at the end. It’s just a reduction that will add richer caramel and toffee flavors to the beer. All you need to do it is a stockpot and your stove top.

Also: An addition of yeast nutrient will help during fermentation, so add some near the end of the boil.

Yeast selection requires special attention here, for a couple of reasons. The first is that you’ll want an alcohol-tolerant and fairly neutral yeast strain that will contribute to the flavor profile. The second is that you’ll need to pitch plenty of heathy yeast to ensure a proper fermentation. As for particular strains, I am a big fan of dry yeast and can recommend LalBrew Nottingham to fully ferment an English barleywine while contributing subtle fruity esters. On the American side, a neutral strain such as Fermentis SafAle US-05 or LalBrew BRY-97 West Coast Ale will do the job with an even cleaner profile. Liquid yeast is a great option, too, but be prepared to make a large starter. (Not sure how much to pitch? Check out our Yeast Pitch Rate Calculator, among the Tools at beerandbrewing.com.)

For fermentation: Start low, at about 62°F (17°C). This a big beer—guaranteed, it will produce an internal temperature increase of 5°F (2°C), possibly more, when the yeast cells get vigorous. Too warm of a fermentation can produce fusel alcohols or diacetyl (think bad movie popcorn), or a host of other off-flavors. So be kind, and ferment on the lower end to avoid the headaches and flavor-aches.

A good barleywine gets better with age. Brew it, bottle it, and let it sit a while. Try some at six months, then 12 months, then 18 months—you get the idea. Take notes and see what changes in the flavor profile. Are there more pronounced sherry notes? Perhaps more melanoidin character coming to the fore? Besides the evolution of flavor, aging a barleywine should reduce and round out the alcoholic warmth and any solvent-like notes on the palate.

Barleywines make excellent gifts, so halve your batch, keep some, and share the rest with beer-friends and family. An addition of bourbon- or dark-rum-soaked oak chips adds nice complexity if you like wood-aged beers.

Long-term goals: Brew one every year and reserve several bottles, so you can share vertical tastings to see how they evolve.

Annie Johnson is an experienced R&D brewer, IT specialist, and national beer judge. Her awards include 2013 American Homebrewer of the Year honors.

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