Tuesday, December 20, 2005

On Barleywines

Barleywine is a style of beer that's traditionally produced for the winter months -- it is bold of flavor, and strong in alcohol. Figure that the average American barleywine clocks in around 10% ABV. Their British cousins are usually somewhat milder (though not always), but at 8% or so, they are by no means mild. In beer, most of the flavor is determined by the malts and hops used. Generally speaking, malts provide for the sweet, and hops provide for the bitter. American-style BWs generally favor the hops, while British BWs usually emphasize the malts.

The first barleywine I had was Anchor's Old Foghorn, probably around 1994. That first time, I was overwhelmed by the alcohol qualities it contained, and did not appreciate them. Rogue's Old Crustacean (yes, many barleywines are called Old something) soon followed, and it too took some adjustments to my palate, but I did in fact enjoy it. Since then, I have tried well over 100 barleywines, and the style has become one of my favorites.

In recognition of their higher alcohol content, barleywines have traditionally been bottled in sizes less than 12 ounces. Both Old Foghorn and Old Crusty were for sale in roughly 7-ounce bottles, as was the most famous of the style, Thomas Hardy's Ale, a British brew. The barleywine I just consumed, Lakefront's Beer Line, was in such a traditional bottle, which is well-suited to its 10% ABV. These days, however, the smaller bottle is the exception rather than the rule. Like many wines, bigger beers can develop different characteristics as they age. Yeast is placed within the sealed bottle so the beer can continue to ferment -- this is called bottle conditioning. The thing is, the aging process works better with larger bottles, which is why the bottle of Cisco's barleywine I'm currently drinking -- Baggywrinkle -- which clocks in at a very strong 12% ABV, is 750ml (25.4 ounces for the less mathematically inclined out there), the same size as a standard bottle of wine. Unlike wine, unfortunately, an opened bottle of beer generally cannot be stored.

Thus, such large quantities of high-alcohol beer certainly produce a challenge to consume by oneself, particularly on a weeknight. I wish Kathy could share this with me, but recently she seems to be have developed an allergic reaction to bottle-conditioned beers, quite possibly from the yeast (she hasn't had any reaction to draft beers), so I will soldier on, perhaps into oblivion. Not likely though -- it's not like this is the first time I've done something like this.