As fall approaches in much of the United States, the palates of seasonal beer drinkers start to shift toward a preference for heavier and heartier beers. The days get shorter, the nights colder, and cravings emerge for best tasting beer styles like the best stouts, brown ales, and porters. One of those styles that help put a little meat on the bones to get through the depths of winter is the barleywine.
First and foremost, barleywines are not for the faint of heart. They are big, they are bold, and they will knock at least one sock off with a malty, hoppy, or boozy punch. But it’s those punches that often make these beers special to the breweries that make them and the drinkers that seek them out. For this reason, barleywines are a perfect option for anniversary ales.
There are two main styles of barleywines: American and English. Both get up there in alcohol-by-volume, generally between 8 percent and 12 percent. Both beers use a more than ample amount of malt, which boosts the booze and, in turn, sweetness. More hops are then added to balance that sweetness.
Both styles mostly let the boozy sweetness shine and offer big notes of bready toffee, molasses, and caramel. English-style barleywines tilt toward the maltier, sweeter side of the equation. American-style barleywines are — surprise, surprise — often an aggressive hop bomb. They can be viewed as an amped-up imperial IPA that could almost burn off taste buds with their bitterness.
It appears to be an unfortunate trend, however, that breweries are fading out their barleywines. So finding them can be difficult now, especially at retailers. But it can be done. So get your frosty beer glasses ready and read about some of our favorite barleywines.
Sierra Nevada Brewing’s Bigfoot is the quintessential American craft barleywine. Many American drinkers learned of the barleywine from this stalwart. Brewed since 1983, Bigfoot is a big, hoppy barleywine from the brewery that helped define what hoppy American beers are. The beer is perfect for aging and therefore a staple in many beer collectors’ cellars for vertical tastings. Those tastings can stretch more than 10 years thanks to the beer’s big booze and hop content and the evolution of the beer without quality degradation.
Louisiana is not widely known for its beer scene. That scene, however, is bubbling over the side of its boot-shaped vessel. There are several incredible breweries in the state and Parish Brewing is one that is leading the way. Like many barleywines, Parish’s Grand Reserve is a once-a-year release. It’s an English-style barley wine and it’s often a big, thick malt bomb as promised by the style definition.
Thanks to Fritz Maytag, Anchor Brewing Company is the forefather of all modern breweries in the United States. Old Foghorn was first brewed in 1975 (just a few years before Bigfoot), and this English-style barleywine helped re-establish barleywine as a style across the globe. The traditional brewing method is arduous and resource-rich, but the resulting product is a beautiful, classic American beer.
Some of the best big beer breweries are in Alaska. There’s a good reason for that and it’s in the name of Midnight Sun Brewing. Half the year, Alaska is shrouded in darkness and cold, giving drinkers a big reason to sip on some delicious, boozy beers. Midnight Sun’s Arctic Devil is a perfect example of the barleywines that can be made in Alaska. It’s aged for several months in oak barrels and this English-style barleywine provides an oaky, nutty booze bomb to warm from the inside out.
Minnesota’s Surly Brewing company is known for its big hoppy beers like Furious and Todd the Ax Man. Fourteen, however, builds on those legacies by taking a nice boozy barley wine and ages it in Parker Heritage Wheated Bourbon Barrels. Clocking in at 11% ABV, Fourteen has plenty of malty sweetness before it’s mellowed by the bourbon barrel influence that leaves it full of oak, vanilla, and caramel.
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