The Brew Man Group: Time for Barley Wine

Dan Armstrong and Neil Partridge - 3B Mechanical and 3B Chemical
Posted on: January 20, 2010

The Brew Man Group: Time for Barley Wine

Welcome, dearest Brew Man Group readers, to another semester of great beer discussion. Dan is stoked to be back in the cultural and social haven that is Waterloo (…) but Neil is unfortunately still stuck in Japan, drowning in a sea of loneliness, Engrish, and cheap flavourless rice beer. As such, there will be at least a few more segments requiring international collaboration, and both Dan and Neil will have to spend many more nights drinking away the pains associated with long-distance BFF-ship (Beer Friends Forever). Thankfully there is a beer style that, particularly in these cold months, can bring anyone out of their sorrow, warm them up a bit, and kill any brain cells that were holding onto those sad thoughts. That’s right, it’s time for some barley wine.

Neil: Many of our readers may oft be at the receiving end of a three-beer funnel (no worries, we’ve been there too!) But for those of you who want to remember what you put down your throat last night (maybe some don’t…), the Brew Man Group is here to show you the way to beer nirvana; it all starts with barley wine!

The history of barley wine is not well documented; however there are indications that this style was the result of a common trend amongst British brewers as far back as two centuries ago. The original recipes leaned toward a huge portion of pale malt, dry hopping (hops added after boiling), extra long or multiple fermentations, and aging of the beer. The finished product blessed the Brits (those cheeky bastards) with one of the most complex and alcoholic brew styles ever, with specific gravities reaching 1.1 and alcohol levels pushing 12%. However, the scale was small and it wasn’t until later that the actual term “barley wine” was coined and commercialized by the company Bass in 1903. Since then, barley wines have evolved and diversified into a worldwide style. Almost every reputable ale brewer has at least one barley wine (hooray!), but there’s a catch, they are brewed in limited quantity (damn!), and often modified annually (eep?). Also, due to their complexity, bottles are labelled by year to allow for idiot-proof cellaring. Basically, this means that you might want to drink every barley wine like it’s your last, because most likely it will be! (I take no responsibility if this statement is abused in any way.)

Dan: The barley wine of concern to me today is from Mill Street, a brewery that first started producing beer in Toronto’s historic distillery district in 2002, and continues to operate out of the same vintage 1870s facility today. Thanks to beers such as their flagship Tankhouse Ale and accessible (yet hippy-friendly) Organic Lager, Mill Street has become quite popular over the past few years. Tankhouse, one of my favourite go-to beers, is even being served at The Bombshelter now, perhaps a sign that the world is indeed ready for some flavourful beer. Other stellar selections from Mill Street include the Coffee Porter and Belgian Wit, both of which, along with today’s featured Barley Wine, are available at the LCBO. There are several brews however (including their ESB, tripel, and IPA) that can only be purchased at the brewery itself or at their on-site brewpub. Perhaps Neil and I can celebrate his home-coming with a few too many pints there later this term.

The only other Canadian barley wine you might find at the LCBO is St-Ambroise Vintage Ale from Montreal, which is the one that got me into the style. Also available is the classic Fuller’s Vintage Ale from the UK, though it is sometimes classified as an ‘Old Ale’ due its somewhat lower strength (8.5% ABV instead of 10% or 11%). I just like to think of it as being Neil-sized. Other Canadian options are Half Pints’ Burly Wine from Winnipeg and Dieu du Ciel’s Solstice d’Hiver from Montreal. Keep an eye out for these when working out-of-province.

Neil’s thoughts: Hey Dan, did you know that ABV really stands for “Arrogant Bastard Value”? I think that 8.5% is more than enough for most, but you can keep drinking the 12%’s all you want. Just thought I would throw it out there… Well readers, this has never happened before in Brew Man Group, but it seems that I’m at a loss for finding barley wine in Japan (and Dan didn’t send me a Christmas present). Although there are many microbreweries scattered around the different prefectures, there seems to be almost no distributors or special stores like the LCBO to stock rare items. That leaves only one option, search the web in full kanji (yeah right!) and have it mailed via Japan Post. In the end, I did find a bottle of barley wine from my favorite brand “Yoho Brewing Company” for a mere $40, which is just under a third of the price of the most expensive beer in the world (see Samuel Adams Utopias). Naturally, I bought two bottles, but shipping didn’t co-operate in time for the article deadline. I will surely bare shame for 1000 years, but at least Dan has something much more delicious and accessible to review. [4 angry readers/5]

Dan’s thoughts: Normally I’d tell off Neil right here, but I just can’t. In his land of the bland, the guy dropped serious cash seeking out some rad-ass beer, a respectable act that reminds us all to savour what we can get our hands on. For me, that would be Mill Street Barley Wine, 2009. $12 for a single pint of beer, and not for a Heineken at Neil’s favourite euro-beat douche-fest (sorry Neil, the respect didn’t last long). It pours out of the fancy ceramic bottle into a goblet to reveal a light hazy orange brew with a medium creamy head. No real lace to speak of, but at 11% ABV that’s sort-of to be expected. Smells of candied fruits, orange, and spicy alcohol. The first sip shows off the thick, chewy mouthfeel, which is quickly followed by spicy/floral hops, sweet fruity citrus, and caramel malts. Finally there’s a nice dry finish with a small, but noticeable alcoholic burn. Nice stuff. This beer was brewed all the way back in April 2009 and was left to mature for several months before being bottled and released for the winter. I’m sure this will age very well, but it’s already come together in a really good way (and for the price tag, I should certainly hope so). [4/5]

All examples mentioned above are recommended for consumption. Seriously, go buy some barley wine.

Props to hops // Dan and Neil