Barley Wine: History

Written by Angela Rayfield

The rivalry between beer and wine is nothing new. It goes back centuries, and even helped name a beer style.

The terms “barley wine” or “malt wine” have been seen in documents going back to the 18th century. Back in those days, beer and wine weren’t consumed for pleasure as much as they were considered basic foodstuffs (and they were far safer than water). Wine had become fairly well respected, and brewers wanted to gain the same respect.

Why Call a Beer a Wine?

Wine was generally considered strong, safe and nutritious. Brewers wanted a beer that could compete, but the yeasts in beer simply tend to stop working long before that alcohol level can be reached. English brewers at that time generally used a process called parti-gyle brewing, with two or more beers being created from a single mash.

The grain would be crushed, loaded into the mash tun and liquid added, and then the appropriate amount of time later, the liquid would be drained. Fresh liquid would then be added to the grain, and the process repeated, but each use of the mash would result in a weaker beer. (Think of re-using coffee grounds.) The first “batch,” or strong beer, was considered the good stuff.

Somewhere along the way, brewers discovered that “walking” their casks of fermenting beer around the brewery floor would keep the yeast active, resulting in a still higher alcohol content. With a little ingenuity, brewers could create beers with alcohol contents ranging from 9% to 12%, making the comparison to wine a reality.

Barley Wine Goes Commercial

Strong beers that could fit into the style classification as barley wines were brewed through the years, but the term largely fell out of use. Then, in 1903, Bass launched the first beer marketed as a barley wine, called Bass No. 1 Barley Wine. Although a number of other brewers also released barley wines, the style faded in popularity, and is only a small share of beer brewed today.

While the style is brewed in the United States, wine is a designation that is only allowed on beverages fermented from fruit, not grain. Because of the U.S. labeling laws, instead of being called barley wine, it must be labeled “barley wine-style ales.”

Barley Wine Style Characteristics

The style guide of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) recognizes two styles of barley wine – English Barleywine and American Barleywine. The two styles are very similar.

Barley wines are rich and full-bodied, with very malty aroma and flavor. The color can vary from from a light amber to a copper or brown, but should not be opaque. Barley wine can be a hoppy beer, with the American style placing more emphasis on the hop character. Generally, English barley wines are darker, maltier, and fruitier than the American version.

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