Barley Wine is Not Wine, and Other Metaphors for Life

Barley: eagerly waiting to be turned into barley wine

Written by Tom Becham

In the Cambridge Online Dictionary there are the following definitions:

beer noun: an alcoholic drink made from grain.

wine noun: an alcoholic drink which is usually made from grapes, but can also be made from other fruits or flowers.  It is made by fermenting the fruit with water and sugar.

In book after book about beer, I have seen barley wine referred to as, “not wine, of course, but beer.”

According to  Page 14 of the New World Guide to Beer by Michael Jackson, barley wine is not an easily and readily determined category among beers like ale or lager, being distinguished by specific factors, such as yeast or fermentation temperature.  Rather it is a beer style, with rough, and slightly cloudy guidelines.  Indeed, that page of the book has a “Family Tree of Beer Styles”, and puts “pale/dark barley wines” on the tree as an evolution of both English style old ales and English strong bitter ales.

Furthermore, Mr. Jackson states in his Beer Companion, 2nd Ed. on Pages 100-101, that barley wines are a top-fermenting ale of “the range of 6-12 percent alcohol by volume” and that the style is far older than the name itself.

In the book 300 Beers To Try Before You Die by Roger Protz, Mr. Protz states on Page 113, “… by the early 18th Century the term barley wine was in vogue.  As a result of the interminable wars with France, it was the patriotic duty of noble Englishmen and women to drink the ‘wine of the country.’  Fine cut-glass goblets adorned the tables of the aristocracy and, deprived of their beloved claret, they turned to beers made as strong as wine.”

So it seems that barley wine was an early equivalent of “Freedom Fries” and was also a (much earlier) slap at the French.

Of further interest is the fact that U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms regulations require all American-made barley wines to read “barleywine-style ale” on the bottle. (Yes, this is a nonsensical reg; but then the BATF also required domestic producers of all lagers stronger than 5% ABV to label them “malt liquor” until very recently, so one can see that many American labeling conventions are completely arbitrary.)  Check this out at any well-appointed beer outlet, and you’ll see what I mean.  The Fed assumed – perhaps rightly this time – that we needed to be reminded that barley wine is just an ale and not really a wine.

But since so many readers of Professor Goodales will already know the previous things, why am I harping on them? Because I have a story that will illustrate our need as beer geeks to question those things we “know”, and to challenge our own assumptions on a regular basis.

My story starts a couple years ago, when I first got involved in home brewing.  At that time, there were 2 “brew masters” in the group.  I’ll call them Jay and Ray.  Jay was one of the guys who had founded the group.  He was – and still is – a nice enough guy and a very skilled brewer.  He also has certain “issues”, and for lack of a better description, he likes to tell stories that aren’t necessarily based upon fact.

For the most part, everyone in the brewing group knew of his penchant for storytelling, (or – let’s give him the benefit of the doubt – spreading misinformation without checking his sources) but also figured that he would always be truthful and factual about beer, as it was so important to him.

We were all wrong.

Jay told us all that barley wine was any ale over 8 or 9% ABV, and that Imperial Stouts, Abbey

Dubbels, Imperial Porters, etc., could all be barley wines.   He told us all, including Ray, that barley wines are actually, technically wines, and that the U.S. Government regards them as such.

Somehow, even as a novice, I suspected that Jay’s pronouncements about barley wine were wrong.  But Ray still upholds them, and I hesitate to correct Ray even now.  Ray is also a very skilled brewer and a decent guy that I even consider a friend.  But he takes a somewhat rigid and inflexible approach to things he “knows”, which is why I have still never confronted him about the barley wine controversy.

Of course, I am also not immune from closing my mind to data I don’t wish to acknowledge.  In fact, a couple months ago, I walked into my gym one Saturday and overheard a woman saying she’d never tasted a dark beer that she liked.

This was, of course, like a magnet to attract me to the conversation. I started to lecture the woman about the differences in beer styles, and told her that she shouldn’t judge all dark beers on the basis of mass-marketed ones (I even used my stock line that “Guinness” is the Gaelic word for “Budweiser”.).  I insisted that given enough time, I could find a dark beer that she would like.

Now, while it is likely true that I would eventually find this woman a dark beer that she would enjoy and savor, I realized some time after the conversation that I could be wrong.  Despite my beer knowledge it may just be that her individual tastes are such that this woman would not like ANY dark beer.  It’s a sad thing, certainly, but it is quite possible.  Despite the wonders of craft beer, there are also some, like my Step-Dad, who continue to believe that Michelob is the pinnacle of the brewer’s art, and aren’t convinced otherwise even when they taste the difference.

While we can say to ourselves that the macro-drinkers need to open their minds and broaden their perspectives, maybe we should also do the same and accept their choices.  A good lesson, I think, and one that extends far beyond beer.
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Tom Becham lives in California, he’s a homebrewer and reviews beer, brewpubs, breweries and beer events for professorgoodales.org.