Thursday, June 7, 2012

Pursuit of Hoppyness It’s all a matter of style – Barley Wine (unedited)

The relationship of writer and editor is often a fraught one. Here is my Barely Wine article from the current Pursuit of Hoppyness as it was meant to read.

 Style is incredibly important to the world of beer. While the world of wine hinges on grape variety in the beer world its style that communicates what one should expect to find when the bottle is opened. From the customer selecting which beer they want to purchase to the beer judge assessing a beer, to the brewer fine tuning their craft, style is what frames what we can expect to get from a beer. Our understanding of beer style stems from both the history of how different types of beer have developed and from an analysis of how beers are continuing to change and develop today. There are a lot of myths about the history of the beer styles we enjoy today. Until recently there has been a relative lack of serious academic interest in the subject and as a result beer writers have tended to pass on the same fables reinforcing often totally false ideas about the history of many beer styles. The recent work of beer historians such as Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson has done much to shine light on the mists of time. This issue I cover the style that at times has been so misunderstood that authorities have tried to ban its name, one which covers a relatively broad range of beers, which had its heyday in the jubilant extravagances that followed wartime austerity, and most importantly the style that makes the ultimate accompaniment to a slice of stilton, an open fire and winters night. This issue I look at Barley Wine.


The idea of Barley Wine as a style of beer is a relatively recent development dating from the late Victorian / Early Edwardian period. Up until then English beers in a range of styles were brewed to high gravities and were often referred to as Stock Ale. The term Stock Ale referred to the fact that these strong beers were kept ‘in stock’ to mature and ripen before being sold. Pale, Burton, and brown ale were all produced in a range of strengths with the lower strength versions sold ‘mild’ or young and the stronger ones sold ‘stale’ or old as stock ale. Burton Ale was the style Burton brewers were famous for before India pale ale took the nation and colonies by storm. It was a strong, dark copper to amber type of draught beer that was usually hopped enthusiastically, while also brewed to be sweet and malty and has all but vanished from today’s beer drinker consciousness. Examples still exist today but are branded barley wine, old ale, or strong ale. At the start of the twentieth century the term Barely Wine starts to creep into brewery advertising, describing strong beers in every style on the pale side of stout and porter. Before this the term barley wine does appear but only to describe beer in general, rather than to describe strong beer. In 1870 the British Medical Journal referred to Bass Barley Wine. Martyn Cornell believes this to be a reference to Bass No 1 Burton Ale, the strongest Burton Ale that the large Burton brewer regularly produced. By the mid 1900’s the brewer was advertising No 1 as a Barley Wine. Bass was not alone; the other Burton brewers also started to promote their strongest burtons as barley wine. Brewers in other parts of the country started to brand their strongest products as barley wine. Despite the challenges posed by the First World War most English brewers in the 1920’s and 30’s still produced one or two strong beers. The Second World War again brought taxes and raw ingredient shortages which made strong beer production impossible. This wartime austerity however, made for what Martyn Cornell has argued was the golden age of barley wine. The post war period saw a proliferation of pale, strong , malt accented beers that were marketed under the barley wine label. At this period there was a general move towards paler beers. Golden lager was taking Europe by storm and in England dark mild was giving way to pale ale and brewers obviously saw strong, rich pale ale as having potential. A survey in 1956 found nearly seventy different barley wines and strong ales being brewed in Britain. One of this new breed of pale barley wine to come from this period was Gold Label Sparkling Barley Wine from Tennants in Sheffield. In 1961 Tennants was acquired by the national brewer Whitbread and Gold Label became a national brand with the marketing slogan of “as strong as a double scotch and ½ the price!” something which might cause more than a little controversy today! I await the next Moa press release with interest! Gold Label is still available today although it has a reputation as a bus stop beer, and has suffered from the constant reorganisation of Britain’s national breweries by the global brewing corporations. It is the pale barley wines from this period that have most influenced our contemporary understanding of the style, with many of the dark ones being categorised as Old Ale another ‘catch all’ style that includes beers from a range of historic traditions which I will look at in a future issue. From the late 1960’s on, barely wine numbers started to decline as brewery mergers and buyouts resulted in consolidation and an increasing focus on core mass market products. Incidentally this period of decline coincided with the advent of Eldridge Pope Thomas Hardy’s Ale, for me the absolute classic of the style. By the 1970’s, when Michael Jackson started to document the beer styles of the world, there were a handful of examples left from Regional Brewers and national brands Bass No 1 and Whitbread Gold Label. The 1980’s brought the micro brewing revolution. However British micro brewers were slow to take to the style concentrating on lower strength draught beers. This was no doubt in part due to their lack of bottling lines, but also in part to the fact that strong beer in Britain had by this time firmly become a niche product.

English Barley Wine

Barley wine is today still a niche product in the UK. This is in part due to Britain’s drinking culture that still favours drinking draught beer in licensed premises rather than drinking bottled beer at home. It is also due to a taxation system that, like New Zealand’s, progressively penalises strong beers encouraging brewers and punters alike to favour moderately alcoholic beers over strong ones. That said England is still home to the majority of the world’s classic barley wines. Britain has just increased excise tax on beers over 7.5%abv and has reduced excise on beers under 2.8%abv, what this will do to the British barley wines is yet to be seen. English barley wines tend to be richly malty, full bodied, with earthy hop character playing a supportive role to complex fruity, vinous, warming fermentation characters and complex caramel and toffee edged malt flavours. For me the classic example is Thomas Hardy’s Ale. Originally brewed by Dorset brewer Eldridge Pope in 1968 to commemorate the anniversary of the writer Thomas Hardy’s life and the refurbishment of one of the brewery’s flagship pubs, the beer was regularly brewed until Eldridge Pope ended production in 1999. Four years later after a series of disastrous business decisions the brewery left the brewing industry to concentrate on its pub business. By this time Thomas Hardy’s Ale had a cult following in the U.S., and American beer importer, Phoenix Imports, purchased the rights to the recipe and name and contracted Devon based micro brewery O’Hanlon’s to produce the beer. O’Hanlon’s Thomas Hardy’s Ale was then produced from 2003 until 2008 when the global economic crises caused O’Hanlon’s to give up the contract in the interests of the company’s survival. Hardy’s Ale is an incredibly complex and rich example of the style with a huge potential for aging in the cellar, I was lucky enough to sample a 1979 bottle on my 30th birthday. When young, the beer has an almost meaty, creamy, mature cheddar like maltiness to it, with an assertive fruity orange hop character and a smoky edge. As it ages the beer becomes leaner, with all sorts of Madeira and sherry notes, pineapple, raisins, prune like characters and a nutty Bovril note. I raided the cellar for this article and tasted every vintage from 1999 to 2008, never let it be said that I don’t suffer for my readers! Another classic English Barley Wine producer is London brewer Fullers. Fullers produce an impressive 2 different takes on the style, the pale filtered Golden Pride, and a bottle conditioned version Vintage Ale. Golden Pride is very much in the tradition of the barley wines of the 50’s and 60’s , pale, fruity and relatively hoppy. At 8.5% its perhaps at the lower end of the spectrum for the style but it makes up for it with plenty of rich pale malt, the Fuller’s signature marmalade and ginger loaf yeast character and a tangy hop finish. Vintage Ale is brewed to the Golden Pride recipe but uses single origin ingredients that are deemed to be the best of that year’s harvest by the brewing team. Vintage Ale is bottle conditioned rather than filtered allowing it to be cellared.

American Barleywine

American started its love affair with Barleywine on the same trip that saw Anchor Brewery owner Fritz Maytag discover pale ale brewing. Fritz tasted English barley wines on his seminal tour of Europe in the early 1970’s. In 1975 Anchor released Old Foghorn a beer that took its lead from the malty fruity beers he had encountered in England. Just as he was doing with the pale ale style Fritz added fruity piny American hops to the beer and unlike the English versions that had inspired him he added them to maturation as well creating a much more hop accented type of barleywine. A problem arose when it came time for Anchor to get permission from authorities to sell the beer. American authorities decided that for a product to bear the word wine it would have to have grapes in it. Maytag responded by naming the beer Old Foghorn 'Barleywine' style ale. The term has stuck and while in rest of the English speaking world we call the style barley wine in America it is barleywine. The style took off, albeit as a niche. Sierra Nevada soon followed with their even hoppyier Bigfoot . There are now hundreds of barleywines produced in America. Unlike Britain and New Zealand, America taxes beer at a flat rate regardless of alcohol. American barleywines tend to be fermented with more neutral yeast cultures than English barley wines leaving more room for assertive hop aromas and flavours to stand out.

 New Zealand Barley Wine

 Barley wine hasn’t been a common style in New Zealand however as our craft brewing industry ages, more and more are appearing. Shakespeare King Lear Old Ale was the first strong ale brewed in New Zealand in the modern period and vaguely fits into the Burton Ale descended dark barley wine style. The first really striking pale barley wine came from the now defunct Limburg brewery in Hastings. Brewer Chris ‘Father’ O’Leary was inspired by Sierra Nevada Bigfoot although the resulting beer seemed to be more English in style . He set about creating a New Zealand equivalent and in 2004 brewed a 10.5%abv barley wine heavily hopped with New Zealand grown styrian goldings. The resulting beer was called Oude Reserve and was so massive that it was undrinkable for the first 3 months of conditioning. In the end it received a full 40 weeks maturation on lees before being released at the 2005 BrewNZ week. Many of us still remember cupping brandy samplers of it straight from the 1C tap at Shed 5 which served as its brand HQ that year. Oude Reserve was bottled and still lives on in a select number of cellars around the country. I was lucky enough to sample one recently and I can tell you it’s still going strong with rich toffee accented malt, a deep savoury note, ripe orange fruit, and a firm long lasting finish. It’s pretty clear to me that Oude Reserve will be going strong on its 10th birthday! More recently The Twisted Hop brewpub in Christchurch started to produce a barley wine under the name of Epiphany until it was discovered that New Zealand’s other real ale brewpub, Galbraith’s in Auckland had produced a beer under that name. The Twisted Hop changed their name to Enigma. The Twisted Hop took the wine part of barley wine one step further than most aging Enigma in a pinot noir barrels giving the beer a big tannic woody fruity finish that brought grippy shiraz to mind. A subsequent batch was aging in stainless when the February earth quake hit and was left stranded in the Red Zone for months. The beer never had the barrel aging treatment and the prolonged conditioning resulted in a fantastically smooth rich fruity beer with notes of leather, apricot, rich malt and a long warming finish. At the start of last year Renaissance Brewing in Blenheim brewed a massive 10.8% abv barley wine under the name Tribute. The beer was aged extensively before being released and revealed a Vogel’s bread like maltiness and marmalade note when young. As the beer has aged it has developed dark dried fruit notes and a liqueur like spirity character. It has a lot of aging potential and is definitely one for the cellar. Interestingly Renaissance had to battle some of the same bureaucratic issue that anchor did 35 plus years before after a public servant objected to the use of the word wine without grapes. Luckily the issue was worked out amicably and the beer carries its correct style written the correct way. Finally Liberty Brewing in Taranaki has developed two barley wines already in its short history. There is eccentrically named MMMMoMMftCHv3 is a black barley wine , sort of a new fusion style of imperial porter and American barleywine and the Debilitated Defender a chest thumping 11%abv monster of an American style barleywine.


 At its essence the barley wine style is a relatively modern catch all style or family of styles that along with Old Ale take in the range of strong English style beers that aren’t stout or porter. That said it is definitely a family of beers that are deserving of recognition and protection from both the overzealous attentions of labelling officials and the threat posed by excise increases. After all there are few better accompaniments to a slice of stilton, an open fire and a winter’s night! Next issue I will look at stout and porter.

1 comment:

Ron Pattinson said...

I often buy cans of Gold Label for nostalgia's sake. It's not the beer it used to be since they knocked down the strength. I should get someone to brew the 1960's version. I've got the recipe.