A cold, dark winter evening is the perfect time to hunker down with a glass of barleywine, a dark, strong, malty ale originating in England.
It's dark, complex, sometimes bittersweet, sometimes fruity, and always very alcoholic.
And no, it is definitely not wine.
After the Norman invasion of England (1066), English monarch's were Frenchmen who were used to drinking wine. England's climate is too cold for growing grapes, so wine was imported from France.
War with France interrupted England's wine supply, so the nobility turned to beer.
In the early 1700s, the development of pale malts combined with a more scientific approach to brewing led to the brewing of ales of considerable strength.
These beer were first brewed by butlers for wealthy families, and were not the low-alcohol, daily sustenance of the working class.
The term "Barley Wine" was first used in the early 1800s. These beers are have a very full body, have high alcohol (8 - 12% ABV), and are aged. Barleywine is one of the few beer styles that can benefit from aging.
Barleywine can range from amber to dark copper or light brown and has sweet, malty aromas with hints of raisins and figs.
The big caramel and toffee-like flavors come from extended boiling during brewing. The flavor is big and bold, but does not have the roasted flavors associated with stout. Extended aging gives this beer considerable complexity.
This is a very full bodied, high alcohol beer, and it can have "legs" when swirled in a glass. As with wine, legs are not an indication of quality, just an indicator of (among other things) high alcohol.
Barleywine is usually is served in a snifter with a serving size that reflects the higher alcohol level.
This is not a refreshing beer, this is a beer for sipping.
The considerable sweetness is offset by a substantial helping of hops. English versions tend to be more rounded and balanced between malt and hops.
Here are some English Barleywines to try:
These are beers are American-made, but brewed in the English-style:
Barleywine was introduced to America in 1975, when Anchor brewing released "Old Foghorn". American style barleywine emphasizes American hop varieties, and the flavor balance is definitely toward the bitter side.
American regulations prevent the labeling of Barley Wine. Instead, they are labeled Barleywine-style Ale (or something nondescript, like Specialty Ale).
While usually thought of as an after dinner drink, English barleywine, with its bold flavors and subdued bitterness, makes a good match for rich foods. Try it with lamb from New Zealand, which tends to be more strongly flavored than American lamb. If you were an English lord, you might pair it with stag or wild boar that you hunted on your estate.
Barleywine excels at pairing with cheese!
Cheddar and Gruyère are well worth trying with barleywine, but blue cheese pairs especially well. Try pairing Old Foghorn with Maytag Blue and pay tribute to Fritz Maytag, the washing machine heir who is responsible for both.
Barleywine paired with Stilton is a match made in heaven.
Stilton, a pungent blue cow's milk cheese know as the King of English Cheeses.
The sweetness of barleywine is a counterpoint to the pungent blue cheese, while the earthy malt flavors meld with the earthiness of the cheese. The whole thing is accented by the oxidative flavors that come from the beer's aging.