Great Divide

Five Great Barley Wines

Photo: Flickr/meisenberg13

In these dark, frigid depths of winter, piney IPAs just don’t cut it. Neither do prickly pilsners or even an inky stout. When the mercury dips low and the heater is cranked high, there’s one style of beer that’s guaranteed to stoke your stomach furnace: barley wine.

Consider this a most delicious oxymoron. The British-born barley wine contains no grapes. In fact, the beer style has nothing in common with Chardonnay or Merlot — save for an alcohol percentage that often tops double digits. Perhaps that explains why the thick, sometimes fruity, sometimes hoppy, always strong ale has become one of wintertime’s signature belly-warming brews, providing the liquid courage to shovel out the driveway yet again.

Broadly speaking, barley wines are broken down into several camps. British barley wines, like J.W. Lees & Co.’s Vintage Harvest Ale, are typically less brawny and more rounded. On the flip side, American brewers have a heavy hand with bitterness and booze. Case in point: Great Divide Brewing’s Old Ruffian packs more than 85 international bittering units (IBUs) and 10 percent ABV, while Rogue Ales’ XS Old Crustacean boasts more than 100 IBUs and an 11.5 percent ABV. Drink two, and it’s good night for you.

Here are five of our favorite barley wines for surviving winter’s chill.

1. Sierra Nevada Brewing: Bigfoot Barleywine Unlike its namesake, Sierra’s Bigfoot is a common, elegant creature. The rust-tinged brew presents a fruity perfume and malt sweetness that’s kept in check by a decidedly bitter streak. When aged, the beer grows more balanced as the hops slink into the background.

2. Schlafly Oak-Aged Barleywine The copper-toned barley wine spends several months aging on fresh oak chips, which impart smooth, mellow notes of vanilla. There’s plenty of malt on the palate, too, with flavors of dark fruit and oak.

3. Anchor Old Foghorn Barleywine In 1975, the San Francisco brewery helped revive barley wine in America by releasing Old Foghorn. It’s substantially hopped with flowery Cascade hops and tastes of biscuity malts, caramel and a tidbit of toffee.

4. Great Divide Brewing Co. Old Ruffian The ruby-brown Ruffian presents an aroma of caramel, cherries, plums and pine. The barley wine drinks caramel-sweet, with notes of dark fruit and a huge hit of hoppy bitterness. Be careful: The 10.2 percent ABV will quickly wallop you.

5. Nils Oscar Barley Wine Hailing from Sweden, the ale verges toward the sweet side. Flavor-wise, it offers loads of dark fruit and a light bitterness, instead of off-the-charts IBUs. It’d be divine for dessert.

The story was originally published on Food Republic.

Free the Hops

wiar_free_the_hops6081.jpgIn case any of y'all were curious, I pen a biweekly beer column for Gourmet magazine's online component, This is my latest column, about the battles our dear beer-drinking brothers in Alabama are waging to be able to sip a pint o' delicious, high-alcohol nectar. Drink it up!

The Battle for Craft Beer Long deprived of world-class brews, Alabamans are fighting back.

Stuart Carter is crazy for craft beer. The Alabama computer-service technician loves refined Belgian Trappist ales, Great Divide’s rich, dark, decadent Yeti Imperial Stout, and Dogfish Head’s strong, sweet Midas Touch Golden Elixir. There’s only problem: In Alabama, drinking these beers constitutes a criminal act.

“You can buy fortified wine or pure-grain alcohol, but you cannot buy Atlanta’s SweetWater IPA because, gosh, it contains 6.7 percent alcohol,” says Carter, president of Free the Hops, a grassroots beer-advocacy group fighting to reform the state’s many antediluvian laws.

Home-brewing is currently illegal in Alabama. A brewpub can only operate in a historical building situated in a county that sold alcohol pre-Prohibition. You can be fined for bringing two cases of beer into dry counties. And most problematic for craft-suds fiends like Carter, Alabama (along with Mississippi and West Virginia) prohibits the sale of beer that’s higher than 6 percent alcohol by volume (5 percent alcohol by weight)—just a bit stronger than a Budweiser (which has 5 percent ABV).

“Most craft breweries’ beers start at 6.5 percent alcohol by volume,” Carter says, adding that, out of’s top 100 beers in the world, just four are sold in Alabama (though the number varies because the list changes weekly). “We need to bring Alabama into the twenty-first century.”

To remove the restrictions, the three-year-old organization introduced bills into Alabama’s legislature. They failed in 2006. And 2007. Carter partly blames Birmingham Budweiser, which distributes Anheuser-Busch products, for the bills’ defeat; he claims that Birmingham Budweiser vice president Pat Lynch has lobbied against changing legislation (Gourmet was unable to verify the claim).

In January, Free the Hops escalated its tactics by calling for a ban on products handled by Lynch’s distributorship. Lynch did not respond to calls for comment, but on February 13, Free the Hops revealed that the Alabama Wholesale Beer Association (AWBA) had helped broker a compromise between Lynch and Carter’s organization. The beer concerns are hammering out a bill that would increase the allowable ABV from 6 percent to 13.9 percent—welcoming most craft brews to Alabama.

“Passing this should be a no-brainer,” Carter says optimistically about the bill, which should go before the legislature later this year. “Wholesalers will make scads of money, more tax money will go back to the state—and we’ll finally be able to drink good beer.”