Swill: Everything You Need to Know About Barleywine


Swill is our bi-monthly column dedicated to liquor, wine, beer, and every other delicious dram that falls under the broader umbrella of booze. But it’s more than just tasting notes scribbled on a cocktail napkin — Swill is about getting outside of your comfort zone, trying new things, and exploring the big, wide world of libations. One week you might catch us halfway through a bottle of single-malt scotch, and the week after that we might be buzzing on some Ugandan moonshine made from bananas. This column is just one big boozy adventure, so grab yourself a glass and join us for another round!

Unless you’re a hardcore beer geek, barleywine is a horrendously confusing thing. Chances are you’ve heard of it before, but if you’re like most causal beer enthusiasts, you probably only have a foggy idea of what the hell it actually is. For this reason, I felt compelled to put together a quick explainer piece, to help demystify this lovely and under-appreciated subcategory of the craft beer genre. Here’s everything you need to know about barleywine:

For starters, despite what the name might lead you to believe, barleywine isn’t actually wine. It’s definitely just beer — although it does have some notably wine-like characteristics, which is how it got the name. The first thing that sets it apart from normal beer is the alcohol content. Barleywines typically boast an ABV somewhere around 9 to 14 percent ABV, so they pack about as much punch as a bottle of wine. This makes them extremely well-suited for barrel aging, and while this isn’t necessarily a requirement, many of the barleywines you’re likely to encounter are aged in oak barrels, much like wine.

But that’s where the similarities end. Apart from ABV, barrel aging, and the fact that both drinks are fermented; barleywine and regular wine have very little in common — although both categories are both quite broad. Barleywines can run the gamut from deep gold to pitch black obsidian, and their flavors are even more varied than their color. The English versions tend to feature more dark fruit and toffee flavors of a dark crystal malt, whereas most American barleywines you’ll drink will boast copious amounts of hops — sometimes to the point that it’s hard to decide wether you’re drinking a barleywine or a very strong, very malty imperial IPA.

However, no matter what style you pick up, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be big on flavor. Barleywines offer one of the fullest, richest, and most complex flavor experiences you can get from a beer — so the weak-mouthed need not apply. This is a true craft beer enthusiast’s domain, and if you’re brave enough to dive into it tongue first, you’ll quickly realize that there’s a whole new world hiding in the dark, dusty corners of your local brew shop

To get you started, here’s a few of my favorites. Keep an eye out for them!

  • Straight Jacket — Revolution Brewing. This is my personal favorite. Despite the fact that it’s nearly 14 percent ABV, it’s outrageously smooth and easy to drink.
  • Bigfoot — Sierra Nevada. This is one of the most widely-known barleywines in existence, and while I’m not crazy about it, it’s a solid example of a typical American barleywine
  • Anniversary Barley Wine — Uinta Brewing. The brewmasters at Uinta are crazy talented, and their barleywine is crazy delicious
  • Blackberry Barleywine — New Belgium. For those who aren’t averse to fruity beers, this one from NB is an excellent example
  • Hellodorado — Firestone Walker. This one is a blonde ale aged in whiskey barrels. It’s lovely, and almost reminiscent of a white wine.