April 6th, 2010

The First Sip: An Introduction to Barley Wines

The First Sip is a virtual beer flight written by Brian Royo, the brewer out at No Label Brewing Company. He will select a beer style, pick a few craft or micro brews that he’s been sampling, and discuss what he likes about them. For the beer connoisseurs, it’ll be a unique chance to hear a local brewer’s thoughts on what makes these beers great. For the novices and aspiring beer knurds, he’ll walk you through what you should be looking for in a good beer and offer some suggestions on quality suds for you palette.

What the heck is a barley wine? Is it a wine or a beer? In short, it’s a beer that is as strong as wine, but made with barley. Hence the name barley wine. This style of beer is relatively new to me and I have only recently started becoming a fan them. For this article, I had a tasting at Frontier Fiesta at the University of Houston. Everyone was welcome to taste and I encountered some people who really liked the barley wine and some that couldn’t stand it.

Barley wines are generally intensely sweet, malty and somewhat bitter. Think of a Port wine but with bitterness. Barley wines are among the strongest beers that are made. The alcohol content can range from 8%-15%. Because of the high alcohol content, barley wines age very well. These beers tend to be very thick and full bodied. They can seem almost syrupy, but this should not be a characteristic of barley wines. The high alcohol and viscosity may make it seem syrupy giving it legs or veins when you swirl it in glass. The reason they are so sweet is because the original gravity is so high that the yeast does not ferment all the sugars. The remaining sugars give it the sweetness. The color ranges from light amber to a light brown.


My first impression of barley wine was one of disgust. I can honestly say that I did not like it. Of course, this was back when I would do keg stands and beer bongs of Keystone Light. So it might be prudent to ask what the heck I knew? The more that I learn about beer and the more I grow my palate, the more I appreciate the many styles of beer. These days, I love barley wines. There’s nothing like sitting in my back yard on a cool day with nice barley wine and a fine cigar or drinking one as a night cap after a stressful day. If this is your first time trying a barley wine, don’t be put off by first impressions. Give them a chance, I guarantee you that you will grow to like them. Remember, Barley wines are not to be consumed in mass quantity. They are to be sipped slowly to allow for the most enjoyment and appreciation.

For the tasting, I had Jeff Rocheleau, from the Cane Island Alers (Katy’s Homebrew Club) give me a hand. He has a lot more knowledge of barley wines than I do. Starting with the most bitter to the least bitter, we put all the barley wines in a line. Doing a tasting of barley wines is tough because they are very strong beers and they can get you tipsy rather fast.

Here is what was on the menu for the tasting:
Stone – Old Guardian
Pike Brewing – Old Bawdy

Flying Dog – Horn Dog

Real Ale – Sisyphus
Sierra Nevada – Bigfoot 2010
Anchor – Old Foghorn

The overall favorite seemed to be Anchor Brewing Co.’s “Old Foghorn”. This barley wine was the most subtle of the barley wines that were tasted. Maybe that’s why it was the favorite. The alcohol content was about 9% ABV (on the low side for a barley wine). The malt and hops were well balanced with a pleasant bitterness. I suggest Old Foghorn for your first barley wine.


Real Ale Brewing Co came in a close second with their Sisyphus Barleywine Ale. Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, was punished for all eternity by having to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down. However, drinking this barley wine is no punishment. I could only dream of being forced to drink a bottle, only to have it fill right back up, for eternity. Like the Old Foghorn, Sisyphus is well balanced between the hops and malt. It didn’t seem to have as much of the bitterness as the Old Foghorn and it packed a little more punch, with about 11%ABV. However, the higher alcohol content does not detract from the drinkability of this beer.

I had the pleasure of meeting with Real Ale a couple of weekends ago and I was able to try their “cask” Sisyphus. We will get into cask beers at a later date, but let me just say that their cask Sisyphus is truly delightful. Too bad it is a very limited production. I definitely recommend Sisyphus to any new barley wine drinkers.

If I were to guess, Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot 2010 came in third. Things were starting to get a little blurry about half way through the tasting. Like the Old Foghorn, this barley wine has lower ABV at about 9.5%. This was probably my favorite out of the selection we had. Powerful malt and hops but neither overpowered the other. Bigfoot goes down smooth and has a pleasant after taste. This is another that I would recommend to a first time barley wine drinker.


I will wrap the other three in to one. The Stone Brewery “Guardian”, Pike Brewing “Bawdy”, and Flying Dog “Horn Dog” were not popular with the general public. In all fairness, these were people that were having their first barley wine and these three beers definitely packed a bigger punch in terms of bitterness and alcohol content. They are definitely not for the faint of heart. The “Bawldy” comes in at 10%ABV, “Horn Dog” is at 10.2%ABV and the “Guardian” comes in at 11.3%ABV. These three beers are very intense with sweet malt and bitter hops. They are extremely full bodied. I enjoyed these but not as much as the “Bigfoot”.

It seemed as though people either really like the barley wines or they hated them. I was surprised to see how many people did not know what barley wines were. They were very interested in it and taken back that they were actually beers. I think this will be a topic that we come back and visit again in more depth. I want to thank Jeff Rocheleau for all the help with the tasting. We’ll do another tasting soon, so email me at brian@nolabelbrew.com if you’re interested in participating.

This week, I will be in Chicago for the annual Craft Brewers Conference. You can bet that I’ll be taking extensive notes on the conference and any great beers that I try up in Chicagoland. Anyone for an Oldstyle? Expect a full report for the next article.

Support your local brewery!


- Brian Royo
No Label Brewing Co.

— Brian Royo


Jeff Rocheleau — Tuesday, April 6, 2010 6:02 pm

I like to help when I can! Anything to bring good beer to the masses!

As an addition, I’ll say these two things:

Barleywines are broken into two distinct categories. English and American. English barleywines will tend to favor malt character more (sweetness) whereas the American version leans toward the hops (bitterness). This would explain why so many preferred the Old Foghorn (a classic English style that is smooth and easier to drink) versus the Bigfoot or Old Guardian, (an unapologetic American style that slaps you in the face with hops so hard that your tasting it in your breakfast cereal the next morning).

Secondly, don’t be a Navin Johnson, (”Let’s splurge! Bring us some fresh wine! The freshest you’ve got – this year! No more of this old stuff!”). To get the most out of your barleywine, try aging it for a few years. Barleywine is a monster of a beer, so giving it a year or two will allow the alcohol to get more smooth, develop some of those layers of flavor from the malt backbone and round out some of those hops that may be a bit too harsh in the beginning.


MarkSpizer — Sunday, May 2, 2010 6:49 am

great post as usual!

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