The term “barley wine” came about some 300 years ago when brewers would age ales in casks for an extended time. They used this term since they used similar processes in wine making, but instead of using fruit, they would use barley. Then, they would get together with wine drinkers and compare the strength and quality between the two. The brewers would normally bring them out once a year, or for special occasions to show off their skills in beer making. Since there weren’t many different styles of beer back then, most barley wines would be just stronger versions of a pale ale with bitters, often leading to them being referred to as old ales or strong ales. Most barley wines originally had ranges of between 8-12% ABV, depending on a few criteria.
Bass was the first brewery to commercially launch a barley wine in 1903, entitled Bass No. 1 Barley Wine. Many breweries followed suit, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the first American brewery, Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, launched one of their own. It was called Old Foghorn, and it was released for mass production. But because they didn’t want to turn people off by thinking they were making beer into a wine, Anchor Brewing removed the space between “Barley” and “wine,” thereby combining the 2 words together for label approval purposes. Sierra Nevada’s “Bigfoot” soon followed afterwards, but was (and still is) a much more hop-forward version of a barley wine.
The history of this style reminds us of what many breweries do today when they barrel-age beers. Could this have been the start of BA beer making? We’re not sure, but learning about this style sure makes one wonder. Barley wines are not as popular as many other styles in the industry today, but are still considered to be the leaders in complexity and high gravity. So if you’re looking for a smooth, complex, high ABV beer as a nightcap, there’s a barleywine out there waiting for you…