Weekend Drinking Assignment: Try Barleywine, The Perfect Winter Warmer

Isn't it nice to turn on the weather channel and see that blizzard warnings are still in effect? I foolishly believed that winter was over, but just when the temperature started to warm up, BOOM! A week of rain and snow awaits. It got me in the mood for a little winter cleaning, which to me means reaching into the depths of the cellar (see: closet) to dig into some barleywine.

Barleywine may sound like an awesome beer-wine hybrid, but the only thing it has in common with vino is its high alcohol content, reaching 12% or higher. In fact, American barleywine is actually a cousin of the IPA, strongly hopped and more bitter than sweet. If you want to do an experiment, you can age a double IPA and as the hops fade and the malt comes out, what you're left with will resemble barleywine. On the other hand, traditional English barleywine is much sweeter, with flavors of dark fruit and molasses. Both variations on the style are great and you should try a few to get a taste of just how expansive the style can be. If you're stuck inside this weekend, here are five great barleywines that'll really warm you up.

  1. Sierra Nevada: Bigfoot Barleywine Ale

This American barleywine is perhaps the most available and accessible barleywine around. Everyone's taste is different: Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman says he prefers it fresh, but if you're patient enough to age a bottle it's a different beast entirely. There's lots of sweet malt, caramel, fruit ranging from citrus to plum and it's just 9.5%, so it's lower in alcohol than most. When fresh it's very hoppy, but watch out, more than a few of these Bigfoots will sasquatch you!

  • Firestone Walker Brewing Company: ┬žucaba
  • Yes, you read that right and no, I'm not quite sure how to pronounce it either. ┬žucaba is a tough one to come by, but it's worth every bit of effort. This barrel-aged beauty of an English barleywine is 12.5% and so smooth! Caramel, toffee, bourbon, vanilla and oak all really shine through. Bar-none, Firestone Walker do barrel-aging best, and while Parabola and their Anniversary beers are amazing, this one might be my favorite of the bunch.

  • J.W. Lees & Co.: Vintage Harvest Ale
  • This is the quintessential English barleywine and one of the few beers in the world you can actually buy back-vintages of. I highly recommend buying a few and doing a vertical tasting to see the difference. There's lots of sweetness, caramel, raisin, honey and bready malt so that the the 11.5% is ridiculously well hidden. It's a classic take on a classic English style.

  • Goose Island Beer Company: Bourbon County Brand Barleywine Ale
  • This dark English barleywine is a return to the fine form they left off with cult classic King Henry. While it's missing some of the complexity that the 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle barrels gave KH, this is still a remarkable beer with rich vanilla, bourbon, sweet caramel and dark fruits like raisins, figs, plums and even cherries. It's a new classic to look forward to (hopefully!) every year.

  • Hair of the Dog: Doggie Claws
  • When it comes to high-alcohol beers there's simply no brewery that pulls it off better than Portland, OR's Hair of the Dog. This American barleywine is quite hoppy, but there's a ton of citrus character, brown sugar and caramel from the malt that balances it out. The 11.5% is smoothed out with age but both the ABV and hops linger for years to come.

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