For centuries, beer has been seen as a peasant’s drink. Made by even the lowliest farmer, many of the upper crust would not partake in the beverage due to its connotations to the poor. Even in some of man’s earliest written records, we find that beer’s oldest ancestors were snubbed by the well-off for drinks of a higher perceived quality.
Thankfully, one style of beer arrived recently on the scene to bridge the gap between farmer’s quaff and debutante’s drink: the Barleywine.
Barleywine is a relatively new style of beer, despite its name being as old as some of man’s first societies. Barleywine is first referred to in some writings of the ancients Greeks, including a few notables such as Polybius, Xenophon and Pliny the Elder. (Pliny also has an India Pale Ale named for him, due to his early descriptions of hop flowers. We at the Brewstorian hope to cover this drink in detail in a future installment.) In a portion of these texts, the drink referred to as Barleywine was something that early agriculturalists could produce cheaply and in amounts vastly exceeding that of wine. Due to this, the upper crust saw the drink as clearly inferior — why would they waste their time on something so widely available when they had the opportunity to purchase and consume wine?
This belief is something that even modern drinkers may have experienced. Beer, for many years, was marketed as the workingman’s drink, sold solely as something for the lower castes of society. This all changed around the middle of the 17th century, however, in the mecca of brewing sophistication: England.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, England and France were less than friends, having it out in many major confrontations, including the War of Spanish Succession, the Seven Years’ War and even the American Revolutionary War. During these conflicts, trading between the two countries was something of a rarity — much to the chagrin of the British upper class.
These socialites enjoyed drinking French claret, a red wine, with their meals and couldn’t get it due to the monarchies’ various wars. The aristocracy desperately wanted to drink something at their dinner parties, and so English brewmasters were called to the scene.
The brewmasters came up with Barleywine, a hugely malty and alcoholic beer made specifically to replace the rarified French wine. Akin to a strong ale of the time, Barleywines were only enjoyed by high-society socialites for centuries.
That is, until the late 1800s, when Bass Brewery released its Bass No. 1 Ale Barleywine, a high-gravity ale coming in at 10.5%. The drink was advertised as one of the many varying styles Bass offered, bringing Barleywine to the people. Later, during the 1970s, Barleywine hopped the pond and made its debut in America with Anchor Brewing Company’s Old Foghorn. With this release came the subsequent Americanization of the drink, forgoing the balance of the English malt and hops by adding big, citrusy American hops. This gave American Barleywines an even bolder body and larger-than-life taste.
Since Anchor’s initial American release, Barleywine has become a celebrated style with brewers across the nation. Perhaps no beer better captures the essence of American Barleywine than Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine. Released annually, Bigfoot has become a favorite of vertical taste-testing as well as an entry-level beer to the world of Barleywines.
A fresh Bigfoot has an intensely piney aroma, with colors of deep cherry and a tan head that sticks to the walls of the glass. The first sip smacks of powerful hops and alcohol, ending near the back of the palette with equally strong notes of malt. The body of the beverage is very thick and will linger on your palette well after the drink has been swallowed, but not in an unpleasant way. Serving the beer warm will accentuate the malts in the drink, as well, if that’s more your style.
These notes refer to a freshly cracked bottle. Not unlike a wine, Barleywine can be aged if you keep it relatively cool. Each year will add new flavors to the bottle and create an entirely new drinking experience.
So lift your nose and enjoy a fine, aged Barleywine with your best smoking jacket and leather recliner. It’ll add a little class to this year’s MLB season openers.