Oktoberfest season is a distant memory and the Christmas beer season is pretty much over (you might still find a magnum or two of Anchor Christmas or a lone Chimay gift pack on the shelf, and I saw a six-pack of Jubelale last week). That means we're into the third and final phase of my favourite... well, what's the collective noun for a group of beer seasons? A tun? An ale eon? Either way, it's barley wine season and time to start stocking up on beers like Brooklyn Monster, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Anchor Old Foghorn and Stone Old Guardian, or maybe something from your local brewery.
Barley wine is probably the beer that first comes to mind when we think of strong winter ales, especially English strong ales, but there are others. The lines between them can be quite blurred, and it doesn't help when brewers decide to call their new beer a barley wine when, strictly speaking, it's a winter warmer, a stingo, an old ale or a Burton ale (and that goes both ways too), but you can hardly blame them when the differences between the styles can be relatively small and the strong ale category so fragmented.
It's impossible to talk about barley wine in any depth without going into the history of one of those other styles, so grab a beer and make yourself comfortable. Once upon a time...
Although it sounds quaint and olde worlde, barley wine as a recognised beer style is relatively new; far younger than, for instance, porter, stout, pale ale and IPA. Bass No. 1 is usually held up by beer historians as being the first beer to be labelled as a barley wine by the brewery who made it a little more than 100 years ago although it, and other beers like it which also came to be called barley wine, had been in production for some time. The emphasis on “by the brewery who made it” is important because the term 'barley wine', meaning a strong ale, had been in use for many years, it just hadn't been put on a label yet.
To get to the heart (and the beginnings) of barley wine we need to look at a particular kind of strong ale, and the place where it was originally brewed and subsequently named after – Burton upon Trent in Staffordshire, which was (and still is) a centre of British brewing. It's also worth mentioning the word 'old' in relation to beer and reminding ourselves of what it meant (a beer that had been aged, or at least, wasn't entirely fresh) and that you could have 'old' beers of almost any style. If they weren't old they were mild (young), and you could have both an old Burton ale or a mild Burton ale.
One other source of confusion we need to get out of the way is this: Burton ale is not the same as Burton pale ale or Burton-brewed India pale ale, even though Burton upon Trent played an important role in the history and development of both pale ale and IPA. In recent years one or two brewers who ought to know better have made beers called Burton ale that aren't, and likewise some of the recipes for Burton ale to be found on many homebrew websites and forums. This, for instance, isn't a Burton ale, but it is another reason why you shouldn't believe everything you read on Wikipedia (as useful as it often is) without second and third sources before taking it as gospel.
The origin of Burton ale as a specific type of beer rather than just any kind of beer brewed in Burton lies not too far from that of Russian imperial stout and Baltic porter – they were strong beers which were exported from England to Russia and the Baltic states in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It's true that export beers are usually stronger than their domestic counterpart (Guinness Export Stout and Foreign Extra Stout, for instance), and it's been said that this is to help them survive the rigours of a long ship journey. While there might be some truth to that in the case of those sent to Russia, it was mostly because the Russians wanted strong beer, which is one reason why Russian imperial stout has the kind of elevated ABVs that it does today and why the word 'imperial' has come to mean a stronger, more powerful version of a particular kind of beer.
So, in the late 1700s things were going along quite nicely and a few Burton-based breweries were doing a roaring export trade, helped in no small part by being able to send their beer down the River Trent to Hull which was a major east coast port at that time with ships sailing to all parts of northwest Europe and the Baltic Sea.
In fact for a time it was easier for them to send beer to Russia than to London, until the burgeoning canal system opened up the possibility of moving worthwhile loads of raw materials or finished items around the country. There were no paved roads and the railways were almost half a century in the future, so the only way to transport goods around the country was by packhorse or horse and cart, neither of which were very efficient or secure and most breweries of the time catered to a comparatively local area.
Mind you, canals weren't what you might call safe either and it wasn't unknown for lock-keepers who knew that a barge was carrying beer to demand a helping from the casks before letting the bargee through so that he could continue his journey.
There was almost always a war going on somewhere in Europe, and in the early 1800s Napoleon gave British business owners, including the Burton brewers, serious grief with his Berlin (1806) and Milan (1807) decrees forbidding European nations from doing business with Britain (which, indirectly, was one of the factors leading up to the Anglo-American War of 1812). After Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 things started to pick up again but they were never quite the same, and then a thunderbolt struck.
In 1820 some prohibitive Russian duties on Burton ale had been rescinded, giving brewers hope that they could start doing the volume of business they had before Bonaparte got busy building his empire, but two years later Russia suddenly imposed eye-wateringly stiff import tariffs on almost all British goods, supposedly to protect the interests of Russian agriculture. Burton ale was included in the list of products but, curiously, not stout and porter. Perhaps the Russians couldn't make those as well as the English breweries could.
If Burton ale had been almost any other kind of beer this might not have been such a problem, but it had two things against it. Firstly it was a beer that needed some ageing, so brewers would have to make it well in advance, which meant they had large stocks of beer on their hands and a market that had dried up almost overnight. Secondly, it was a dark, sweet beer which wasn't to the taste of British beer drinkers. Although people around Burton were probably used to it (not all the good stuff went for export), it was a tough sell, but one brewer – Samuel Allsopp – decided to try another tack.
Smart man that he was, Allsopp changed the recipe to make it less sweet and more hoppy, but even so, when he tried selling this new style Burton ale to publicans he found that their customers still weren't too keen on it. The problem was that just like the old Russian-style Burton ale it needed some ageing but it was being sold too young, so he persuaded the publicans to sit on it for a while with a promise of sale-or-return. It worked.
Not content with turning this event to his advantage, Allsopp also did very well making pale ale for the India trade, aka IPA, at the behest of the East India Company who approached him (quite fortuitously) soon after the loss of his Russian business. The gypsum-rich water of Burton upon Trent is well suited for brewing pale ales of great clarity and it's very good at extracting the best flavours from hops while leaving the harsher tones behind, although it can sometimes add a note of sulphur to the beer, a characteristic that came to be know as the Burton snatch.
Other brewers around the country were already producing strong ales, and while some of them named theirs Burton Ale they might just as easily have given it a proprietary name, perhaps named it after the town where they brewed it, or just a basic description such as Acme Strong Ale. Some Burton brewers were in the habit of giving their beers numbers, so a strong dark sweet beer such as Burton ale might be called No. 1. A similar brew but slightly less strong would be No. 2 and so on, down to the weakest (at least one brewery went down to No. 8) which would be a mild ale, and in the original sense of the word, meaning a young beer that should be drunk fresh rather than aged.
It follows that the strongest beers, especially after ageing, were sometimes called 'old', which in turn led to the custom of brewers using the word when naming their strong ales, such as Robinsons Old Tom, Marstons Owd Rodger and Ringwood Old Thumper, a custom which has also been taken up by American breweries including Moylans, Avery, and of course, Anchor.
One of the biggest Burton brewers was Bass, best known for Bass Pale Ale which has become perhaps the most well known of all Burton-brewed beers, but they also made a bona fide strong Burton ale in the 19th century, the aforementioned No. 1 which they renamed Bass No. 1 Barley Wine some time around 1903 and thus was a new beer style born.
Which brings us full circle, but although more strong ales were named barley wine, Burton ale as a specific style went into terminal decline as mild ale and then bitter became the beers of choice in British pubs, and it had all but disappeared by the 1970s when Double Diamond was (erroneously) renamed as a Burton ale. However, after a hiatus of several decades Bass No. 1 is once again being brewed, in the microbrewery at the National Brewery Centre in Burton. It can no longer be labelled as Bass because Anheuser Busch owns the rights to the name and another company brews Bass beer under licence at the Marstons brewery, also in Burton.
No doubt you're familiar with the famous red triangle found on bottles of Bass Pale Ale? Well, Bass No.1 had a red diamond, and there were different coloured diamonds on labels for other Bass beers such as amber (purple) and stout (brown), and even a blue triangle on pale ale that was filtered and pasteurised. Seems like even back then they understood the idea of a branding policy (sorry for the corporate speak, it won't happen again).
Strong Burton ales weren't confined to the British side of the pond. One of the most legendary, and nowadays sought after, was that made by Ballantines of Newark, NJ. This was a remarkable beer for several reasons.
Firstly, none of it was for sale. Just like Brasserie Dupont's Avec Les Bon Voeux used to be before the brewery decided to make it available to everyone, Ballantine's Burton Ale was given away at Christmas to anyone the brewery thought worthy, from employees to politicians, business associates to film stars, local dignitaries to sportsmen.
Secondly, the beers that went into Ballantine's Burton Ale (it was a blend of several aged beers and Ballantine's IPA) were aged in oak barrels for anything up to 20 years, something that was reflected on the label which might say "Brewed Especially For <insert recipient's name here> On May 12, 1946. Bottled November, 1960”. Unlike the barrel-aged lambics we talked about last week though, the brewers at Ballantines wanted nothing to do with sourness so the beer was frequently tested for signs of any of the yeasts and bacteria that cause it.
Thirdly, the brewery made its own hop oil which was also blended into the beer.
The last bottling of this incredible brew was in the mid 1960s, and although it hasn't been around for 45 years it sometimes shows up on eBay where it can sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle, or you might be lucky enough to pick one up at a yard sale for next to nothing. It's been cited as one of the beers that inspired Fritz Maytag to create Old Foghorn.
Speaking of which, you might have noticed that in the UK it's 'barley wine', while in the US it's referred to as 'barleywine', and the label of a US-brewed version will call it 'barleywine (or barley wine) style ale'. As you might expect this is because of regulations and the regulating regulators who enforce them.
There are other differences too. English style barley wine is generally lower in ABV and less hoppy than the American style which, being brewed with bold-flavoured American hops and probably having been given more hop additions, will have a more prominent hop character, but that doesn't mean that the English style is lacking in hops. A beer with as much malt in recipe as barley wine – whether English or American – needs a good dose of hops to counteract the sweetness, and the sweetness in turn mutes the hop flavour and bitterness, so although a barley wine might have been brewed with more hops than a pale ale and could have a higher bitterness rating in terms of IBU, it won't taste as bitter on the tongue.
This all goes to make barley wine a deliciously full-flavoured beer, a perfect beer for cold weather months and one of the best beers for putting away in a cellar and ageing for several years, bringing out a depth and complexity found in few other styles.
“Several years” might be something of an understatement. Decades, even hundreds of years are not unheard of. Here is an account of a 2012 tasting that included a bottle of Allsopp's Arctic Ale (a strong Burton ale that was “Bottled expressly for Arctic use”) from 1875 as well as several other beers that are probably older than anyone reading this, and certainly older than me. One of the fortunate people at the tasting took a picture of the beers that were sampled that day. Dom Perignon '55? No thanks, I'll have what they're drinking.
Could this have anything to do with Robert Plant's decision to come and live in Austin, a city that's fast becoming a US beer centre in its own right?