The brewing of strong ales was always popular in the UK. Hops later became standard in the brewing process sometime in the 1400’s which insured the beers’ staying power, as beers back then were sometimes casked for years before consumption. Over time, a style evolved known as old ale, found in four different parts of the country: Burton upon Trent, Scotland, London, and Wiltshire. London and Burton, in particular, were famous for both pale ales and ultra strong brews. The ales from Burton were noted as being more heavily hopped. These knock-you-out beers were the precursors to modern day barleywines.
In the British Medical Journal’s January 15, 1870 issue, analyses were conducted of then popular old and mild ales. One of the strong beers profiled was then known as Bass’s No 1 Burton Ale. [Brewers referred to their strongest ales as No 1]. A year later, in 1871, an advertisement appeared in a London newspaper promoting “matchless home-brewed barley wine,” likely the first modern mention in print of barleywine as a brewing style. No one is precisely sure when Bass used the term barleywine in its regular marketing and on its labeling, but by 1903, the Bass No. 1 exported to North America was called “Bass and Co’s Barley Wine, The Royal Tonic.”
The barleywine story is a familiar one experienced by other styles like Berliner Weisse, lambics, and cider. A once popular drink ceases to be popular anymore. As the 1960 and 1970’s dawned on the UK, barley wines faded from favor. How fortuitous that the American craft beer revolution was getting underway in the mid 1960’s. Anchor Brewing Company, thought of as America’s first craft brewery, started brewing its Old Foghorn barleywine in 1975, considered more English in style than the aggressively hopped American barleywines which came later.
Now, it seems, that the style, while not even close to the popularity of IPA’s or pilsners, is one of the must-brew varieties for any larger craft brewery, with the hoppier American barleywine style eclipsing the fruiter English style popular in bygone days. Sierra Nevada introduced its own ‘weak’ barleywine in 1983 called Bigfoot Ale at only 9.6% ABV. Dogfish Head brews a more typical 15% Olde School Barleywine. The Scottish brewery Brewdog has teamed up with a Colorado brewery to offer up a 10.5% Shipwrecker Circus.
Back in the 1700’s, malt wine and barley wine as alcohol terms popped up occasionally. Wine has always been thought of as stronger, healthier, and more sophisticated, and beer manufacturers wanted to cash in on that. Modern breweries love the word wine because they can use it to sell beers to discerning collectors and at higher markups. Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Ale is marketed as a drink prized by “beer collectors for its supreme cellarability.” The beers are brewed to age like fine wines. New flavors, characters, and experiences come through as the beer ages, and each release is vintage dated just like a wine.
The Beer Judge Certification Program has a style committee that has codified the differences between Old Ale, English barleywine, and American barleywine. No brewery actually producing a barleywine cares. Neither should you.