Barley wine beers. Ever had one? Technically speaking, they're not wine, at all. They're beers. Beers made from grain (obviously) that have a high alcohol content when compared to most other beers; somewhere between 8 per cent and 12 per cent. They are beers that are made to age, which have a wine-like strength.
Complex and intense is perhaps the best way to describe a barley wine. Old-school English versions tend to harness bitter malt forward flavours balanced by a desiccated fruit sweetness with a touch of oak for structure and enhanced complexity. New-school American versions typically have all that going on too, but with a distinctly more hoppy set of upfront fragrances and flavours. Both, however, are typically big and rich, with warming alcohols that make them a wonderful after-dinner sipper.
"Barley wines are strong beers, relatively bitter and high in alcohol, that are made to cellar," explains Newcastle brewer Shawn Sherlock from FogHorn Brewery. "The flavours and the alcohol are meant to age and mellow over time."
Barley wines are not made to be drunk fresh, like you would a Lager or Pale Ale. More like a fine wine, the liquid is intended to spend a few years suspended in a bottle, slowly maturing, increasing in complexity, becoming richer and more profound over time.
Back when he was at Murray's, Sherlock helped brew the Anniversary Ale 1 (2007); a beer brewed to the barley wine style, which has since become a cult brew among avid beer buffs.
"It's not like brewing a Pale Ale, which we brew once a fortnight. You only get one chance a year to brew a barley wine, because brewing them is a such challenge," Hunter Beer Co. brewer Keith Grice explains.
"They really push your system to its limits. Everything takes longer. It's harder. Everything has got to be spot-on the money for you to get the balance of flavours and alcohol you want. They're typically aged in a barrel for six months or more, waiting until it's ready to bottled and sold."
Barley wines offer beer lovers another level of beer drinking pleasure. They're not meant to be drunk two or three at a time. Instead, they're meant for sipping, slowly, savouring their aged and complex characteristics.
Hunter Beer Co. Hunter Barley Wine No.1 ($25), brewed back in 2015, is a great introduction to the heady, big and rich world of barely wines; all creamy, boozy, woody autumn leaves, maple syrup, caramel and raisin fruit. Meanwhile, Murray's still produce their Anniversary Ale in a barley wine style too. Their most recent release, the AA12 ($19) was brewed with local blood oranges, giving a vivid citrus lift to the massive caramel malt and toffee flavours and bringing a brightness to the hefty yet creamy mouthfeel.
Barley wines are a link to an ancient brewing past, and offer a whole other level to beer, beautiful beer.