With the exception of Eisbocks (a controversial style of beer we’ve debated at length here at Aleheads), the heaviest hitters in the beer world in terms of ABV are Barleywines. Barleywines conjure up a host of memories for most craft beer enthusiasts. Picture a languorous winter evening spent in front of the hearth with a snifter of cellar-temp (or warmer) beer being slowly sipped from the glass like a fine port. That’s the positive side of Barleywines. Then there’s the flipside. Picture your hangover the next morning after dropping 6 pints of Avery Samael (at 16.45% ABV). Ouch.
With great power comes great responsibility. I learned that from the crappy actor that played Tobey Maguire’s stupid Uncle. And no beer has greater power than the mighty Barleywine. Brewed at insanely high gravities, Barleywines are characterized by big, bold flavors including tons of complex sugar and fruit notes. American versions are heavily hopped (as opposed to their far tamer English cousins). They’re generally very full-bodied, don’t hold much in the way of carbonation, and have a tendency to be a touch cloying and syrupy. That, in conjunction with their extremely high alcohol content, makes Barleywines the “sipping and savoring” members of the beer world.
The Baron, Doc and I e-mailed recently about favorites in the style. I had asked for their opinion on the Bruery Coton (technically an Old Ale, not a Barleywine, but very similar in style). They both confided that, in recent years, they’ve shied away from Barleywines because they tend to wreak havoc on their stomachs and livers. While they both appreciate and respect the style as Aleheads, their bodies don’t necessarily feel the same way. I witnessed this first-hand on a recent vacation when Slouch Sixpack’s body violently rejected the Barleywine transplant he had received earlier in the evening.
Me? I still love a good representative of the style every now and then, though I agree that when it comes to Barleywines, moderation is key. There’s not much better than a short glass of the stuff apres-ski…and the big flavors are known to pair spectacularly well with food (from pungent cheese, to aged steaks, to decadent desserts). More than any other style, purchasing a Barleywine is a commitment. They can be pricey, and their overwhelming taste, mouthfeel, and alcohol content means that if you’re drinking a Barleywine or two, that’s probably all you’re sampling that evening. As such, it’s important to be well-armed when making a purchase of this formidable beverage. And that’s what I’m here for, Dear Reader.
My Top Ten Barleywines list is highly personal. It’s hard to say what makes a “good” or “bad” Barleywine since it’s such a challenging beer to produce and consume. Just making the style requires patience, skill, and a commitment to producing a beer that probably won’t sell particularly well. It’s a labor of love for the brewer which means that most commercially available Barleywines are generally pretty good. That’s great if you love the style, but it does make culling a Top Ten list rather difficult. If you’re knowledgeable about Barleywines, you’ll notice a few notable omissions from my list:
- Deschutes Mirror Mirror – I have no doubt it would be near the top of the charts, but alas, the Mirror Mirror has not found its way to the warm embrace of Brother Barley’s stomach as of yet (Beerford, fix this!).
- Lagunitas Olde GnarlyWine – Increasingly becoming one of my favorite breweries, but this highly-rated offering by the NorCal masters pales in comparison to some of their other high-gravity offerings.
- Dogfish Head Olde School Barleywine – I don’t love when DFH pushes things too far (the Raison D’Extra being an exception) and I find the Olde School to simply be “too much”.
- Stone Old Guardian – When Doc and I complain about Stone being over-rated, this is one of the brews we’re talking about. Highly regarded by beer-lovers everywhere…but not by us.
- Rogue Old Crustacean – Same issue here. Respected brewery. Respected beer. But I simply don’t get what all the fuss is about…
- Moylan’s Old Blarney – Number 11 on my list so this was my cut-off point. If it’s better than the Old Blarney, it’s a definite recommendation from me.
One last note before I delve into the list. You’ll notice that many of the beers begin with the modifier “Old”. That’s a British naming convention that many American brewers have propagated. There’s a simple reason for the term…Barleywines age better than any other beer. Because of their high alcohol strength, Barleywines are built for the cellar. And as you might imagine, when a beer style becomes synonymous with dusty, decades-old bottles being brought up from the cellars and storerooms of the British elite, the term “Old” simply attached itself to Barleywines like those weird lamprey things that lived inside the meteor in Empire Strikes Back. It’s good to remember that the style has an affinity for aging. If a Barleywine is too overpowering for you, try tucking it away in a dark, cool corner of your basement for a year or two. Chances are, you’ll be pleased with the results. Now on to the list!
10. Brooklyn Monster: This and the Sierra Nevada Bigfoot are probably the two American beers people think of when the term Barleywine comes up. The Monster is in the English style which means it has very little hop profile. It’s a creamy, smooth, toffee/caramel concoction that hides it’s 10+ABV incredibly well. Probably not truly indicative of the style, but you won’t find an easier-drinking Barleywine anywhere.
9. Avery Samael’s Ale: The antithesis of the Monster in terms of drinkability, the 16.45% ABV Samael is insanely sweet, insanely strong, and insanely full-bodied. It’s also in the English style, but that’s simply out of necessity. The malt profile is so overwhelming that you could put an entire hop bine in the bottle and still not taste it. This is a beer to be enjoyed very slowly and carefully. Every sip brings a new dimension (except the last sip which just brings pleasant dreams). I should point out that Avery makes another delicious Barleywine (the Hog Heaven), but Samael’s wins out for me because of the degree of difficulty.
8. Anchor Old Foghorn: While Young’s Old Nick (made in the UK) was the first Barleywine I ever had, Anchor’s Old Foghorn was my first American-made version and it’s still the beer I mentally compare all others to. Old Foghorn is a classic. Wonderful, candy-like sweetness and nice, subtle fruit undertones mesh perfectly with a gentle, but noticeable alcohol burn in the finish. Like everything else by Anchor, they do justice to the style without going overboard (pun not intended when I wrote it, but definitely intended now).
7. Weyerbacher Insanity: Slouch Sixpack and I just split a bomber of this a few days ago. An 11% monster with loads of fruit, spice, and everything nice. This beer and the Blithering Idiot put Weyerbacher on the map and it really is an impressive brew. Great balance and loads of charred wood and bourbon in the finish.
6. Troeg’s Flying Mouflan: I’ll let the Baron’s sumptuous prose describe this beauty.
5. Victory Old Horizontal: One of my Top 50 beer names because of its lovely imagery. It’s hoppier than the beers below it on the list and that hoppiness really cuts through the treacle and syrupy sweetness that is characteristic of most Barleywines. Victory always puts a fun spin on classic styles and the Old Horizontal is a great example of that. Dangerously drinkable and, as the name implies, a lovely nightcap.
4. AleSmith Old Numbskull: AleSmith rarely makes a misstep and the Old Numbskull truly reveals their talent. An 11% brew with delightful hints of orange and grapefruit, it tastes like honey-soaked citrus fruits splashed with well-aged whiskey. Low drinkability since this sucker is VERY heavy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not delicious.
3. Hair of the Dog Fred: Another one of my Top 50 beer names…this time for its surrealistic simplicity. Fred was the first brew I had from Hair of the Dog and it’s a beast. 10% ABV, rye malts, and 10 hop varietals (thanks BeerAdvocate!) add to the mind-numbing complexity on this one. It’s a big, big beer…not for the faint of heart.
2. Sierra Nevada Bigfoot: I’m sure I’m not alone in having consumed more Bigfoot than any other Barleywine on the market. That’s partly because it’s fairly easy to come by and partly because it’s so damn tasty. Like drinking a candy bowl filled with those sugar-dusted gummy sours, caramels, butterscotch candies, Heath bars, and a big, ol’ helping of well-aged Bourbon.
1. Great Divide Old Ruffian: The hoppiest of the bunch and also my favorite. The Old Ruffian has massive pine and weed aromas and an excellent hop bitterness that perfectly complements the sweetness and fruitiness that dominate the flavor. The alcohol bitterness is well-incorporated and it’s as well-carbonated and effervescent as any beer on the list (no mean feat with the style). The Old Ruffian is a true champion of American brewing and if you can get this puppy barrel-aged or on cask, do NOT pass it up.
Feel free to praise my choices or slander me for outrageous omissions. You may fire when ready.