Here in my neck of the prairies the late December nights have taken an icier turn. As hearty squirrels forage for the last of the pecans scattered beneath trees that have bidden farewell to their autumn foliage, my imbibing desires call out increasingly for something more warming than my usual favourites. And what beer better conjures up a bright orange fire crackling cheerfully at the frost on the windowpane than a barley wine?
Many readers of Tempest know that barley wine is, in fact, an ale. But the moniker is perplexing enough that authorities in the U.S. have insisted that the beer be labeled “barley wine-style ale.” And I remember well my own confusion when a friend and I encountered our first barley wine at Tanaka-ya in Tokyo. We were more than a little intrigued by both the sleekly-designed tapered purple bottle (Japan often takes first prize in the packaging category) and the mysterious joining together of “barley” and “wine.”
Barley wines aren’t for everyone, though. I know people near and dear whose reaction is a scowl and a scathing comment: “Not that sweet caramel toffee crap again!” I won’t protest, avowed malt head that I am. More for me. Even at its Sierra Nevada Bigfoot hoppiest, barley wine is nothing if not a celebration of malt. Today I have three, each from a different country: a Harvey’s Elizabethan Ale from Sussex; a 2012 Sisyphus from Real Ale in Blanco, TX; and a Solstice d’hiver from Dieu du Ciel! in Montreal, Québec.
What is This Wine We Call by the Name of Barley?
According to British tradition, barley wines were the strongest beer in a brewer’s repertoire. Like many other salutary Old World traditions, this one, too, has made its way across the ocean, often hoppier in interpretation. Apropos of the connection with wine, Michael Jackson relates the following:
In order to achieve high alcohol content, the brew was traditionally left to mature in the cask for many months, and rolled from time to time, so that the yeast would be roused to fight one last battle in the conversion of sugars into alcohol. During this long time in the wood, the ale would have gained a vinous character from the resident microorganisms. (Jackson, The New World Guide to Beer, 1988, 174).
Barley wine is rarely produced in this fashion today, but certain historical stylistic traits carry through to the present. The thick, grain-rich mash yields a high-gravity wort amenable to a fermentation that produces fruity esters and warming alcohol levels ranging from 8% to 14%. Carbonation is on the low end, and the head sometimes virtually nonexistent. Barley wines are typically brewed with pale malts, with the depth of colour derived from lengthy boil times. At this level of malt, alcohol, and (sometimes) hop intensity, barley wines age remarkably well. Reports of fine bottles emerging from the cellar after ten years are not uncommon. (Personally, I haven’t yet had the patience to age a bottle beyond a few years!)
Harvey’s Elizabethan Ale is as deep in colour as the night is cold, its tobacco-amber palette giving way to tawny brick hues at the glass’s edge. The aromas are equally profound, resoundingly on the malty side of the style. Accents fall on dark honey-enriched malt and caramelized brown sugar. Dried fruit aromas suggestive of prunes and Calmyrna figs mingle with toasted toffee and Ovaltine. Undercurrents of Oloroso sherry and chocolate milk emerge as the liquid warms and the aromas evolve. Hops are a spectral presence nestled in with the malt, fleetingly floral and slightly anise-like. Out of the glass, Harvey’s is a rich, sweet, and luscious mouthful of dark cherry, dried apricot, crème brulée, and my Mom’s Christmas cake in all its nutty, fruity, dark-bread splendour. Warming alcohol is present as an afterthought, melding with the apricot jam notes in the long and satisfying finish.
Real Ale’s 2012 Sisyphus furnishes a wonderful golden-amber counterpoint to Harvey’s Elizabethan Ale. Bright, zesty caramelized citrus peel hop notes provide a graceful touch of levity that adds tangerine crispness, cheering the brooding honey-malt aromas reminiscent of lightly toasted toffee. Spice aromas and flavours are redolent of winter, with hints of nutmeg blending with raisins and dried persimmon. It is no Sisyphean task to drink this playful beverage akin to wild honey-laced candied orange peel and toasty malt cereal. The beer dances on the palate, finishing with a flourish of marmelade and toast. Even if the balance favours the fruit of the bine, Sisyphus doesn’t overdo the hops. Drink up on the cooler side of cellar temperature before the hotter alcohol notes awaken and intensify the bitterness of the hops.
Dieu du Ciel was one of the brewpubs I frequented during my grad student days in Montreal. Needless to say, I was extremely happy when I found that some of their offerings had snuck across the border with the usual cast of Unibroue characters. Just as many a resident of La Belle Province proclaims the distinct features of Québécois society, Dieu du Ciel’s Solstice d’hiver differs from the two Anglo offerings I’ve consumed thus far. In fact, Dieu du Ciel’s barley wine bears more than a passing resemblance to a Belgian quad or dark strong ale. This copper-tawny beverage features a ripple of malt aromas ranging from dark rustic country bread to toasted toffee, brown sugar, and dark caramel. The malts blend seamlessly with a complex mélange of dark cherry fruit, butterscotch, molasses, and plummy rum-raisin, while earthy licorice notes and the merest hint of lemon tea emerge slowly from the depths. Creamy carbonation lends itself well to this rum-like ale reminiscent of raspberry chocolate-flavoured café au lait with a firmly bitter undertone. The result is a pleasant ensemble that conceals the heady ten-plus percent of alcohol lying in wait for the unsuspecting. As with the other barley wines, savour this one in a snifter. Start off at cellar temperature, and then enjoy how the aromatics evolve as the liquid warms up in the glass.
Now drink one more of each and let the barley wine solace the cold winter evening. Better yet, invite some friends over and spread the warming cheer. Or do as I do and let the purple prose flow.