To Buy or Not to Buy?
1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average
3.5 = good (many better beers out there; won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best
A Note on the Style: English Barleywine
I prefer the malty “English” style barleywine over the hoppy “American” style. All barleywines have a stiff malt backbone and generous sweetness, but the hop-forward American-style is often so bitter as to be indistinguishable from a high-alcohol double IPA. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are double IPA’s; I love me a double IPA when it’s got intense sweetness to offset the high IBU, like Bell’s Hopslam, Dogfish Head 120 Minute, or Founders Devil Dancer.
Despite my preference for the maltier English barleywine, it’s curious that I’ve found way more good American barley wines than English ones.
How to explain this? Is the English style BW less common in the US? Not really. Nearly every brewery that produces American barleywines also produces English ones. The more likely explanation: brewing a good English barleywine is more of a challenge because it doesn’t have the pronounced hops to balance the jacked-up sweetness. Hence, many are sickeningly sweet, like Anchor Old Foghorn or Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot.
But all three specimens below are really good.
Stevens Point Barley Wine Style Ale (Whole Hog Series), Stevens Point Brewery
Rating: 4.44 / 5
12 oz. bottle (4-pk) 10.2% abv, 73 IBU.
From a very reasonably priced 4-pack ($7), the first sip has me totally psyched.
It’s not a great looking pour into a tulip glass, with barely a half-finger of white head atop the opaque, red-tinged, brown murk. Sticky lacing, with legs.
Very little in the aroma, probably just too cold. But bready, mildly floral, and of course malty in the nose, plus a grape-like, mildly acid wine character. Even after it warms, the nose remains reserved.
But in the mouth, now this is a provocative surprise. Stevens Point Brewery, for those of you not from Wisconsin, is an old-time adjunct-lager outfit, one of the oldest breweries in the US. My Midwest beer friends rarely say anything nice about SPB, so I wasn’t expecting a lot from this brew. But this is right up my alley. It’s a complex sweetness, like that of my two favorite English BW’s, JW Lees Harvest Ale and Midnight Sun Arctic Devil. The grainy biscuit flavor is what backstops the sugar-sweetness, not any bitterness. Some will call this cloying. I love it. The sweetness rounds out with an estery, mossy oak. The butter/caramel is of the burnt variety. There’s milk and coconut, too.
The mild to moderate carbonation is a welcome cleanser and leavener of the oily-sticky feel.
I’ve gone back to Riley’s Wines and snatched up the last two 4-packs. One goes in the cellar, the other down my gullet!
Schell’s Barley Wine (Stag Series), August Schell Brewing
On tap, 9.5% abv, 80 IBU.
I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, thinking of Schell as merely an adjunct-lager outfit. What an awesome surprise.
On tap at Mason Lounge (Madison). In a snifter, a handsome pour, a clear coppery amber with a finger of white head and good retention and lacing.
The aroma is a bit reserved. There’s a diacytel caramel, dried fruit, piney hops, and a bit of sharp ethanol.
Flavor in the mouth offers sweet caramel, stone fruit, a bit of citrus, and a floral hop bitterness on the back end. Finishes sweet, with a hint of grassy hops. Alcohol is hardly there.
Upland Winter Warmer, Upland Brewing
Rating: 4.05 / 5
On tap, 8.5% abv, 47 IBU.
Pours a hazy, ruddy copper, topped by a fluffy, two-finger head.
A seriously complex aroma, the sweet swirls with the hops. The hops come as white grapefruit and a bit of must. The lovely roasted caramel struggles to dominate and ultimately does.
In the mouth the malt/hop tension from the aroma comes down solidly on the side of the malt. Simple syrup on the front end, sweet butter and bread in the middle, plus fig and cinnamon-raisin ice cream on the back of the tongue. Goes down with just a rumor of bitter hops.
Feels like a much bigger beer than it is, chewy, even.
Not nearly as good as the other two in this review, but it gets points for availability, as it’s pretty common to find on tap in Midwest bars in the colder months.