Even when he was making beer that almost nobody drank at Italy’s little-known Rome Brewing Company more than two decades ago, Mike Murphy loved making barleywine.
“It’s just something I’ve always brewed from the early days, from when I was in Rome,” he says. “Even then I made barleywines, and I always made them more along the English style.”
Since then, Murphy’s barleywines have become somewhat better known. As brewmaster at Lervig Aktiebryggeri in Stavanger, Norway, Murphy has produced an annual barleywine every year since he took the job in 2010. Now known as Paragon, the beer is a cult classic—a toffee-and-coconut flavor bomb, bourbon barrel–aged, with its 2021 edition checking in at 13.8 percent ABV.
Originally called Lervig Barley Wine, the name was changed when Murphy expanded the brewery’s barrel program in 2018. With that expansion, he created new versions of Paragon finished in rum, Tennessee-whiskey, and maple-syrup barrels. Among barleywine enthusiasts, they’re all whales. Unfortunately, they’re not exported to North America, which means that even the most ardent U.S. fans rarely get a chance to taste them.
“It’s a style that people really appreciate,” Murphy says. “When you make a good one, you get a lot of compliments from the hardcore guys, the old-school guys.”
Heavy Toffee and a Little Fizz
So, what gives Paragon its magic?
For starters, Paragon is an English-style barleywine, not an American one. That allows Father Time to play his role in a way that doesn’t always jibe with pine and citrus notes.
“Those hops, what happens to those when you age them?” Murphy says. “Barleywines are supposed to stand the test of time. For me, when you put all those hops into it, you might as well just drink it as fast as you can unless you like the taste of orange lollipops. I’m not a big fan of that in my beers. The hops get stale fast.”
Although Paragon is brewed in the English style, Murphy wants his beer to have more zip.
“I like a little carbonation,” he says. “Not too much, but a little bit of carbonation, just to get a little fizz. I don’t like big bubbles. Just enough to release the mouthfeel a little bit, give it a little bit more texture so it’s not slick, unlike Thomas Hardy’s, which is usually flat.”
Also, despite the British influence, Murphy also opts for an American ale yeast—in part because he doesn’t want the fruity esters often associated with English strains. “I’m trying to keep the yeast character as neutral as possible in mine,” he says. “I want the other ingredients to stand out. We’re using American ale yeast because it’s pretty tolerant of alcohol. Some people don’t know that, but it can go up pretty high.”
That results in a strong, charismatic beer that is all about malt—as well as time in the barrel.
“I’m looking for heavy toffee and caramel notes,” he says. “From the barrel, I get the coconut notes and ripe fruit, berries, things like that. I like some char notes. I don’t like too many hoppy notes at all.”
Brewed once a year, every annual release of Paragon is now composed of several different vintages. That’s the advantage of having a massive barrel room filled with hundreds of used oak vessels.
“We have a year or two or three in barrels, and we do a lot of blends,” he says. “We’ll make like a hundred barrels ... of Paragon in a year. And out of those 100 barrels, we’ll put a bunch of them away. Then we go and taste them all, we find the ones that taste the best, and we kind of fade them in and out of each other. I might have 24 barrels left over from two years ago [that are] going to go into this year, and then I’ll leave 24 for the next year.”
Many Ways to Play
To start, Murphy recommends aiming for the highest starting gravity possible, layering in plenty of Munich and caramel malts.
“Make sure it has a lot of caramel-toffee notes,” he says. “You need that sweetness. Don’t be afraid to make it darker, almost to the color of a stout.”
Next, pitch plenty of yeast, oxygenate generously—and don’t forget to feed the beast.
“There are a lot of things out there on the market now for helping your high-gravity fermentations,” he says. “Just give it a little help with FAN nutrients, free amino nitrogen nutrients, to help it deal with the higher alcohol.”
Also, don’t be afraid to move away from your normal fermentation schedule.
“I’d recommend fermenting them a little bit warmer, but not too much, to avoid the alcohol booziness,” he says. With a typical American ale yeast, he says, try as high as 70°F (21°C).
That said, you certainly don’t have to stick to the Paragon script.
“I mean, there are other ways to play,” he says. “A nice quad, that’s almost a barleywine to me. You can substitute an abbey ale yeast or a Trappist strain. And then, all of a sudden, you have a crossover beer. I mean, what is a quad? It’s pretty caramelly, right?”
Regardless of yeast strain, plan to rack to a new vessel after fermentation.
“You’ll produce a lot of yeast if you make a barleywine, so get ready for that,” he says. “Ferment out your beer completely. Give it five, six weeks. And then make sure you’re off the yeast. Get it cleared out as well as you can. Because what happens when you sit on dead yeast too long? You have off-flavors you don’t want.”
If you’re planning to age your barleywine on oak chips instead of an oak barrel, giving those chips a bath will get you closer to the flavors that beers such as Paragon are known for. “Soak ’em in a bottle of Jack Daniel’s before you throw them in there,” he says. “Get ’em wet.”
Taste your aging brew frequently, because even a strong beer can go from “not oaky enough” to “over-oaked” in a couple of days.
And then? Just give it time. Or, to put it another way: Don’t plan to tap your 14-percenter after 14 days.
“For a while after you ferment it, it’s almost hard to drink,” he says. “That sweetness needs age, and then it really opens up and becomes something different. One year later, it’s completely transformed into something else.”
The Apex of the Art
So, with that in mind, is it worth all the trouble?
That depends. A good barleywine certainly takes time to hit its prime. Racking off the yeast can be a pain, and you might not even have a spare vessel—or the spare storage space for it. And other than with cheese, Murphy admits, barleywines like Paragon do not always pair well with food. They’re sippers, he says, and they can be kind of overwhelming.
Also worth considering, if you’re choosing between brewing a barleywine and a pilsner or a Kölsch: A barleywine is definitely not what you’re going to reach for after a grueling session behind the lawnmower on a hot summer day.
That might be true. But for Mike Murphy, it’s still the apex of the brewer’s art.
“We all like our IPAs and double-dry-hopped IPAs, fancy beers, and trendy beers,” he says. “But barleywine—especially the English style, the most drinkable one—is what I’m most proud of when I brew it.”