What is barley wine, and how did craft beer make it cool?

By James Beeson

- Last updated on GMT

Enthusiasts: craft beer has helped interest in barley wine soar
Enthusiasts: craft beer has helped interest in barley wine soar

Related tags Beer

It is the beer style that inspired a thousand memes, for many it is the true representation of ‘peak’ craft and the strong drink of choice for any self-respecting beer geek. But it wasn’t always this way.  

For the majority, the phrase ‘barley wine’ will conjure up images of Whitbread's 10.9% ABV Gold Label cans. Much like a 9% tinnie of special brew lager, barley wine was the favoured choice of drink for those looking for a cheap, alcoholic hit, while small bottles of Old Tom were often drunk by doddering old ladies in musky pubs over lunch. Gold Label was even advertised as being “as strong as a double whisky”, a slogan that would surely fall foul of today’s regulatory bodies. Premium it was not.

However, if you were to ask any of the growing number of craft beer enthusiasts in the UK and abroad about their favourite styles of beer, barley wine would probably be near the top of the list. The style has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance, propelled by smaller micro-producers, but what exactly is it, and why has the growth of craft beer helped make it popular in the UK?

What is barley wine?

The barley wine style can be traced back to the 18th-19th century, and numerous conflicts that took place between England and France. Out of a sense of duty, the upper classes turned to drinking ale rather than claret, and barley wine became their tipple of choice.

The beers were strong – often between 10-12% ABV, and were often stored for up to two years before consumption. Despite the use of the word wine, the product was most definitely still made from grain and, therefore, still a beer.

The most famous early example of the style being produced on a mass basis was in Burton-upon-Trent at Bass’s brewery site in the 1870s. Tennants’ Gold Label was first produced in the 1950s, and inspired a wave of copycat brews throughout the decade and into the '60s.

There are two main styles of barley wine: the American, which tends to be more hoppy and bitter with colours ranging from amber to light brown; and the English, which tends to be less bitter and may have little hop flavour, with more variety in colour ranging from red-gold to opaque black.

Taste wise, the beers tend to be fruity and sweet, with a hint of chocolate and coffee if darker malts are used. The hop flavours present can range from peppery to grassy and floral.

When did it stop being popular?

Barley wine has never enjoyed huge amounts success in the UK. According to beer historian Ron Pattinson, it was probably at its peak during the 1950s but the popularity of styles such as bitter and mild meant that barley wine had always been something of a niche product for many breweries.

Whitbread's 10.9% ABV Gold Label product remains available to this day, but many of its contemporaries have disappeared from the shelves and fridges of British supermarkets and pubs. Until the advent of craft beer, perhaps Fuller's was the only major brewery in the UK producing a barley wine of any significance – its vintage ale selling out almost every year upon release.

However, the style was adopted in America in the 1970s, after Anchor Brewing Company released its Old Foghorn Barley Wine Style Ale, and has been fairly popular there ever since, with an increasing number of microbrewers now producing their interpretations of the style.

How did craft beer revive the style?

As the number of microbreweries in the US producing the style continued to rise, brewers in the UK started to cotton on and revive the style. One of the great characteristics of barley wine is its ability to be aged in a cellar, much like a regular wine. This made the brew a viable alternative to imperial stouts for breweries, with many barley wines being marketed as collectors items due to their rarity and long shelf lives.

In 2012, an 8.5% ABV barley wine from Coniston's No.9 won Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival, a sign of the style’s growing popularity. Many UK drinkers now consider barley wine to be among the best styles within the craft beer category, with smaller breweries such as Moor Beer, Five Points and BrewDog all releasing incarnations in recent years.

According to Moor Beer founder Justin Hawkes, the style may have taken longer to cotton on in the UK due to its strength and complexity. “The UK brewing scene suffers to some extent with feeling like it is behind what is going on in the US and feeling the need to catch up, and barley wine is just one of those styles that was a bit slower to capture people's imagination,” he told The Morning Advertiser​. “IPA was easier because you could get smacked with a mouthful of hops and everyone loved it. Barley wine is definitely a harder sell than IPA.

“Pubs are sometimes reluctant to put on a barley wine because they are so strong and it’s perhaps not so trendy, so they are sometimes reluctant to tie up a line on a beer that is going to be a slow mover. It’s more acceptable to consumers in the off-trade because they can buy it and cellar it and drink it at their leisure, and it doesn't have to be drunk fresh like an IPA.”

Despite this, the style has developed something of a status among craft beer fans, with many Facebook and Twitter pages posting memes and jokes about consuming and collecting rare barley wines. Whether this is out of a genuine enthusiasm for the style, or more evidence of the growing cult that craft beer can appear to represent, remains to be seen. 

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