Barley wine: such a strange name for a beer. To the uninitiated the name seems calculated to confuse. Is it a beer or is it a wine? To better understand the style it is necessary to review the early brewing procedures of the beers that we now associate with modern barley wines, and how that style emerged over time.
The brewing of the first barley wine is something lost in the steam from hundreds of British brew kettles, themselves devoted to producing any number of beers. There is no particular date affixed to the accomplishment as the style developed over hundreds of years.
In the traditions of farmhouse brewing, practiced throughout the brewing regions of Europe and the British isles, the brewers lacked the technique and equipment available to modern brewers. To separate the sweet wort from the grain they used woven baskets or a small cloth-covered spigot. The mechanisms for (or even the idea of) sparging or rinsing the grain had not been developed. This necessitated the multiple mashing of the same grain bill in order to extract all of its sugars. The runnings from each mash would then go on to become its own separate beer. This type of brewing is known as parti-gyle brewing. The beers most closely approximating what today we would term a barley wine were produced from the first runnings of this diminishing succession of brews. These first beers, beers big and strong, smokey and dark, had the most flavor and alcoholic strength, and were thus accorded the highest honor. The subsequent brews were (most often two or even three more from a single mash) of a descending order of lesser strength.
These smaller beers were drunk young, but that first, most potent brew was generally stored away and saved to be drunk later. Often saved for a special occasion. Its elevated alcoholic content and additional color helped to keep it from turning. These strong beers, laid down sometimes for years, were the grandparents of what we today call barley wine.
To be sure, there were other strong beers made in similar manner that bore different names: olde ale, strong ale, stock ale. But back then these were all essentially the same beers, all made from the first running. In later years there would be differentiation among these styles as brewers or butlers (those entrusted with the responsibility of caring for the butts of beer) made distinctions for different uses of these beers.
As with many other things involving precedent, the emergence of barley wine as a distinctly named style began in the 1860's with the Bass No. 1. The Burton firm of Bass, Ratcliff and Gretton devised a numbering system to be used in conjunction with the beer's more common name. Their biggest and strongest ale bore “No. 1” as its product designation. Greater numbers signified beers of lesser gravity and strength. The typical starting gravity for the No. 1 in 1890 was in the neighborhood of 1.110 (more than twice that of today's typical micro brew), with the Bass No. 2, another barley wine, fairly close behind weighing in at 1.097 and the down the list through the mild and "family ales.” The Bass No. 1 was also one of the first relatively pale big beers, in contrast with the commonly more dark hued strong ales of the time. Bass also created a separate hierarchy of numbers prefaced by the letter P to denote the dark beers in its repertoire. Their Imperial Stout (1.098) bore the ranking of P1, with P6 reserved for their lightest porter. By 1903 the words “Barley Wine” appeared for the first time on the Bass No. 1 label, setting another precedent soon to be copied by other British brewers.
At the turn of the last century most English breweries produced at least one big beer, if for no other reason than the tradition leftover from the days of parti-gyle brewing. But about that time the tax system of Great Britain started to change where in the higher gravity beer garnished a more lofty position in the new tax structure. This, and the impending grain rationing endured during two world wars, slowly reduced the number of British breweries still brave, or stubborn, enough to produce a barley wine. By the mid-1960 there were very few examples of barley wine left and most of those that had survived were relegated to only occasional or limited production.
Like all beer styles, the parameters of “barley wine” have ebbed and flowed over time from one permutation to another. Probably even more than most. It has gone from a nameless smokey (and at least slightly lactic) big beer made from the first runnings of the medieval innkeeper's small brewery, to a massive brown beer with its own designated style name around the turn of the century, then on to a deep golden brew of near extinction in the 1950's and 60's, and now to the often well (or even over) hopped beers of the American micro breweries.
The formation of CAMRA (The Campaign for Real Ale) in the early 1970's led to increased public interest and awareness, at first in England, and then later in the new world. With the increased focus on traditionally dispensed beer came an increased focus on traditional beer styles, like barley wine. The American beer drinkers and home brewers that visited the British isles in the mid-to-late 1970's were to bring home with them a new concept of what beer could be like.
By the early 1980's these beer aficionados were creating a new wave of beer enthusiasm here at home. The first signs of what would be called the “micro-brewery revolution” were beginning to be seen. Anchor Steam had been making Old Fog Horn for the last few years and Sierra Nevada had just released their new beer—Big Foot. Today there are over 250 examples of professionally made barley wine in the United States and at least a half dozen beer events nation wide that are dedicated to their service. Barely wines have regained their former position of respect. For today's beer drinker Barley wine, although still not commonplace, is no longer that rarefied find from some out-of-the-way pub's dark back corner.