Is it beer? Is it wine? It’s a beer alright: a style of beer so loaded with alcohol it requires its own classification. Most barley wines range from 9’12% alcohol by volume (ABV).
The world’s strongest brew, the Samuel Adams Millennium (20% ABV and a whopping $200 per bottle) is classified as a barley wine. These potent ales typically taste of strong malts balanced by sometimes extremely bitter hops and a heavy alcohol bite.
The high alcohol content in barley-wine-style ales does more than getting the blood flowing, it gives the brew longevity. These beers are often worth storing for 10 years or more under the right conditions and will improve with age just like fine wines.
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot 9.6% ABV ($11.99/6 pack at CNG)
One of the first American barley wine craft brewers, Sierra Nevada, began concocting their highly celebrated Bigfoot in 1985. Light in color, enormous hop aromas fume from the glass. With tons of lemons and a trace of roasted malt character on the nose, this barley wine guarantees a bitter bite and delivers wholeheartedly.
My first reaction was that I was chewing on aspirin’it’s that bitter. The extreme grapefruit-flavored hops will grab your tongue by the roots and leave your lips smacking. Occasionally the initial bitterness gives way to a sweeter roasted malt flavor on the long finish, but the punishing hop zing continues to linger.
Powerfully bitter, this interesting brew is worth storing in your closet for a couple of years till it mellows out a bit, that is, unless you enjoy the big, hairy hop onslaught.
Flying Dog Horn Dog 10% ABV ($8.99/4 pack at CNG)
Flying Dog’s barley wine is the maltiest out of these three brews and perhaps the most accessible to beer enthusiasts trying a barley wine for the first time. Scents of orange and cr’me brul’e waft from this mahogany-colored brew. On the palate, layer upon layer of sweet caramel pairs well with bitter flavors of lemons and a healthy ethanol bite. Thick and heavy, enjoy this one with caution: the high alcohol content can quickly become overwhelming.
BBC – Bearded Pat’s 10.5% ABV ($10.99/4 pack at CNG)
From Kentucky, the Bluegrass Brewing Company’s amber-colored take on the barley wine style offers outrageous hops kept in check with a nice, roasty malt backbone. Floral hop aromas mix with ethanol to insure a tart tang, although they come off a little less astringent than Bigfoot’s nearly medicinal hops.
Sweet up front, the chocolate malt flavors give way to floral and citrus. Bitter and sweet tastes alternate in this thick brew with only a few traces of the high alcohol showing through the bold flavor.