Barley Wine - The Revival of the Tradition of Big Beers


by Fal Allen and Dick Cantwell (Brewing Techniques)





The brewer’s answer to brandy or pinot noir, barleywine is a strong (8–14%), malt-rich ale aged to complexity and oftentimes sipped with the same respect awarded to rare wines. Brewing a successful barleywine takes some adaptation, patience, and, well, just plain more of everything.



The creation of the first barleywine is something lost in the steam from perhaps hundreds of British brew kettles. No particular date can be affixed to the event, nor were the beers produced likely to be referred to as barleywines. It is necessary to review early brewing procedure to understand how beers of the starting gravities and alcohol content we associate with modern barleywines came to be produced, and how the style emerged over time.


Try your hand at brewing a barleywine at home with one of our kits!


The First Barleywines


Farmhouse brewers throughout the brewing regions of Europe and the British Isles lacked the technique and the equipment available to today’s brewers. These early brewers often produced more than one brew from a single mash. The heftiest first runnings were boiled separately to yield the biggest beers, leaving the mash to be re-infused with brewing liquor for the creation of smaller beers of lower gravity. The smaller beers were consumed young, but the stronger brews were generally stored to be enjoyed later (their elevated alcohol content kept them from spoiling). This brewing practice continues in some breweries to this day and is known as the parti-gyle system. (For more information on parti-gyle brewing, check out our article on the ancient technique.)

The emergence of barley wine as a distinctly named style began with Bass No. 1. In 1854, the Burton brewery of Bass, Ratcliff, and Gretton began producing a Strong Burton Ale, which (by merit of the fact that it was their biggest and strongest ale) bore “No. 1” as its product designation. In those days of less sophisticated marketing, Bass merely numbered its ales; higher numbers signified beers of lesser gravity. The typical starting gravity for the No. 1 in 1890 was in the neighborhood of 1.110; the No. 2, another barleywine, was fairly hot on its heels, weighing in at 1.097. No. 1 was also one of the first relatively pale big beers; most strong ales of the era were dark. By 1903, the words “Barley Wine” appeared on the Bass No. 1 label, setting another precedent eventually copied by other British brewers.


Taxed and Rationed into Relative Obscurity


But about that time the tax system of Great Britain started to change so that higher-gravity beer was taxed at a higher rate. This and the grain rationing imposed during the two World Wars gradually reduced the number of British breweries still brave (or stubborn) enough to produce a barleywine. By the 1960s very few examples of barleywine remained, and most of those that survived were relegated to only occasional or limited production.


Barleywine Reborn


Then came the beer renaissance. The formation of CAMRA in the early 1970s prompted increased public interest in real ales and awareness of traditional brewing practices, at first in England and then later in the United States. The CAMRA-inspired increased focus on traditionally dispensed beer spawned greater focus on traditional beer styles such as barleywine. American beer drinkers and home brewers who visited the British Isles in the mid- to late 1970s brought home with them a new concept of what beer could be.

By the early 1980s, these beer aficionados were heating things up in America. The first signs of what would be called the “microbrewery revolution” became noticeable. The Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco had already been brewing Old Foghorn since 1975, and Sierra Nevada had just released its new beer, Bigfoot. Many more soon followed in these breweries’ footsteps, and today, more than 250 examples of barleywine are professionally brewed in the United States. Across the ocean, some barleywines that had been waning in England seem to be making a slight comeback. Barleywine, although still not commonplace today, is no longer that rarefied find from some out-of-the-way pub’s dank back corner.


Technological Changes


In order to better understand the barleywine style and its evolution, it is necessary to look at how beer was brewed in the past. Before the advent of the modern lauter tun with its slotted or perforated false bottom, the separating of the spent grain husk from the sweet wort was an inefficient process. It involved the use of woven baskets or a relatively small cloth-covered spigot in the side of the mash tun. A mechanism for rinsing or sparging the grain had not been developed. This necessitated multiple mashing of the same grains to extract all of their sugars. The runnings from each mash would then go on to become its own separate beer. This type of brewing is called the parti-gyle system. The wort (or gyle) from the first mash had the most available sugar and it went on to be the “number one” — the highest-gravity brew, usually in the range of 1.075 to 1.090 specific gravity (preboil). The second brew weighed in at approximately 1.045 to 1.035, and the third and final brew (often referred to as the small beer) would fall between 1.030 and 1.020. Before the invention of hydrometers, parti-gyle brewing also had the advantage of giving brewers a rough idea of the starting gravity for each of their beers from a given grain bill.

The invention of the modern lauter tun, with its vastly greater surface area and shallow grain bed depths, allowed for more efficient extraction through sparging and thus the making of a single brew from one mash. This innovation ushered in a new era in brewing and changed the front end of brewhouse operations forevermore. The parti-gyle system is now still used on occasion at a few breweries but typically only in the production of barleywines. Fuller’s, for example, will make Old Nick from the first runnings and then remash the same grain to produce a wort for a smaller beer, but this is not their usual practice.


Brewing Barleywine


For the most part, the ingredients, steps, and equipment used to brew barleywines are the same as those required for the brewing of other British ale styles. The differences lie in the quantities of raw materials used and in the technique applied to each of the steps. Brewing a barleywine requires extra vigilance and extra attention; unless you make the commitment to brew nothing but big beers and devise systems and procedures that eventually settle into second nature, the brewing of these — the biggest of beers — is likely to require extra work and craft. The whole brewing process must be considered one of continually making procedural decisions to adjust the enterprise along the way. The question at the root of barleywine brewing is, “How can you get that much more of everything out of your brewing system?”

Grain bill: Barleywines feature malt character. To brew a beer of barleywine strength, you have to use 3–4 times the normal amount of malt per gallon, and with that much grain going into a beer you will get plenty of malt flavor. Our experience dictates that for beers this big, less complex is often better. Keep your malt bill simple. Use 80–100% pale malt. Too many specialty malts (or too much of them) will cloud the flavors and make them muddled and indistinct. Too much specialty malt can also leave too many complex unfermentable sugars in the finished product, making it cloying and overly sweet. When choosing specialty malts, go with only one or two carefully selected ones. Don’t go overboard, and take it easy on the dark malts, because with so much malt and (oftentimes) an extended boil, a little bit goes a long way. For those looking to go a more traditional route, try using all British malts. This will give your beer a greater complexity and depth of flavor than using American grain that was specifically malted for macrobrewing.

The next question is how to get your gravity up into the realm where you want it. Your first inclination might be to fill your mash tun to the very rim with as much grain as you can possibly fit in it. Try to avoid this impulse. The deeper your mash bed, the slower your runoff and the greater your chance of compacting or “setting” your mash (a true bummer). Setting your mash will reduce your runoff to a trickle and extend the process into a multiple-hour affair. We recommend that you do not exceed 2–2½ times your normal mash bed depth.

Mash regime: As far as mash technique is concerned, a single-infusion mash will work best. It should be well-mixed, but not overly stirred. Excessive stirring or multiple mixings (if you choose a decoction or temperature-controlled mash regime, for instance) will tend to beat the air out of the mash, and air helps buoy the mash bed up and keeps it from collapsing or setting.

Shoot for a relatively thick mash and a medium-low mash temperature. We recommend a temperature somewhere between 147 and 150 °F (64–66 °C). Mash temperatures much higher than this will give you more of the complex sugars (unfermentables) and less of the simple fermentable sugars. With the amount of malt you will be using, you will get plenty of unfermentables for sweetness, mouthfeel, and body. Fewer complex sugars may also help with a more efficient and timely runoff.


Burnished Soul Barley Wine

Makes 5 gallons

Grain Bill


20 lb

English two-row pale malt

1 lb

Munich malt

1 lb

Crystal (80 °L) malt

0.125 lb

Roasted barley


1 oz

Magnum (15% alpha-acids) (90 minutes)

2 oz

Kent Goldings (5 minutes)

1 oz

Target for 1 minute

Total IBUs: N/A

Original gravity: 1.106 (25 °P)

Target gravity: 1.015–1.019 (4–5 °P)

Alcohol content: 11.9 % (v/v)


Infusion mash: 148 °F (64 °C) for 90 minutes

Boil: 120 minutes


Yeast: London ale yeast

Fermentation temperature: 70 °F (21 °C)

Fermentation time: 7 days

Aging (prior to packaging): 90 days

Aging in the bottle: 120+days


Left Wing Barley Wine

Make 5 gallons

Grain Bill

30 lb

Crisp Maris Otter pale malt

2 lb

Light crystal malt (or other 80 °L crystal malt)


3 oz

Centennial (10% alpha-acids), bittering

2 oz

Mt. Hood, finishing

Total IBUs: 30

Original gravity: 1.100 (25 °P)

Target gravity: 1.019 (5 °P)

Alcohol content: 10.5% (v/v)


Infusion mash: 152 °F (67 °C) for 120 minutes, dropping to 147 °F (64 °C) for more than 90 minutes

Boil: 120 minutes


Yeast: English ale yeast

Fermentation temperature: 70 °F (21 °C)

Fermentation time: 14 days

Aging (prior to packaging): 90 days

Aging in the bottle: >90 days


Tips for Brewing Barleywine

  • Limit specialty grain use.
  • Keep mash temp low (147–150 °F).
  • Use 10:2 or 2.5 grist-to-water ratio.
  • Avoid stuck runoff: Watch grain bed depth, recirc carefully, run off slowly.
  • Check kettle gravity frequently.
  • Extend boil time.
  • Use strong, healthy yeast starter.
  • Aerate cooled wort like crazy!
  • Ferment between 66 and 70 °F.
  • Condition on yeast for additional 1–3 weeks.
  • Cold-condition on yeast for 3 months.
  • Age for a good, long time.


Lautering: Recirculation. As with other beers, it is advisable to recirculate some of the first wort through the grain bed to remove grain husks and other particulate matter that will inevitably pass through the lauter plates or screens. Recirculation must be done slowly so as not to collapse (or set) the bed and to keep from disturbing the sediment that will have settled to the bottom of the vessel during the 90-minute mash. The practice of slowly recirculating is always advisable, and especially so when brewing barleywines because of the large grain mass.

Gently draw the wort from under the screens and distribute it back to the top of the grain bed. Be careful not to “drill” a hole into the mash bed when returning the wort back to the top of the grain. Home brewers can avoid this problem by simply placing a plate on top of the surface of the grain to catch and diffuse the flow of the returning wort. Many professional breweries are fitted with pumps and diffusers or adjustable piping for recirculating the wort, and a homebrew system can be set up in a similar manner.

Slowly recirculate the wort until it begins to run clear or “bright.” (But beware: Sometimes the wort won’t get completely bright, and the brewer faces the temptation of continuing recirculation at the risk of setting the mash bed, thereby compromising the runoff. You may have to settle for only removing the larger particles during the recirculation and hope that things will clear up as the run-off proceeds.) Once the clarity of your wort is satisfactory, begin running off to the kettle.

Runoff. It is best to start your runoff with a slow flow rate. If the flow is too fast you will most likely set the mash or lower your extraction rate, thus leaving behind sugar in the mash bed that could have gone into your beer. If your mash bed does set, try to avoid repeated or excessive underletting,* which can greatly reduce the gravity of your wort. (See reference 1 for another solution to dealing with stuck runoffs.)

We have found it very useful to measure the gravity of the runnings as the wort enters the kettle. Doing this throughout the runoff will give you a good idea of the overall gravity in the kettle. It will be a good indicator of when (and how much) to sparge and when to stop the runoff. At Pike Brewing, our typical barleywine runnings start at 1.070–1.080 and get up to the upper 1.090s before falling off again. If you are really looking for that huge gravity, you can forgo sparging altogether. This will lower your final yield in the fermentor, but the original gravity of the final wort will be higher.

Sparging. Once the gravity of the runnings falls below 1.060 or so, sparge briefly. Stop the runoff when the runnings are 1.040–1.050, depending on the kettle volume. At the end of barleywine or other big beer runoffs, brewers with holding tanks or additional kettles will often continue to sparge and collect the lower gravity runnings.

They will use these last runnings to make a “small beer.” The making of a second or small beer is a tradition that dates back to the earliest days of brewing and is a good and fun, if demanding, way to use the fermentables that would otherwise go down the drain.

The boil: Boiling the wort brings about several necessary and beneficial changes to the wort: sterilization, the halt of enzymatic action, protein denaturization and coagulation, hop bitterness extraction and isomerization, color development, sugar caramelization, evaporation and wort concentration, and the driving off of some undesirable elements (such as dimethyl sulfide [DMS]). All of these aspects are important to the crafting of any good beer. Both the quantity (length) and the quality (vigor) of the boil are important. Without a strong, rolling boil, many of the above reactions will not fully take place.

*Underletting is a procedure by which the brewer infuses hot water into the mash tun under the false bottom thus lifting the mash bed off the lauter plates and uncompressing the mash bed.

The longer you boil, the more water will evaporate out and the more concentrated your wort will become, resulting in a higher gravity beer. We usually boil a barleywine for 2½ hours. If you have a good rolling boil with a good evaporation rate (10% per hour is fine), you can increase your gravity 10–20 points over this time period (for example, you can boost 1.070 up to 1.085 or 1.090). Remember that a longer boil will result in more caramelization and, thus, more color in your final beer. By stirring or mixing during the boil you can further increase evaporation. Agitated (or swept) kettles are used in systems that have a low ratio of heat exchange surface to liquid volume. By moving a greater amount of wort over the heat-exchange surface, you achieve more heat transfer from the heat source to the liquid.

Some brewers add sugar or malt extract to the kettle to achieve higher gravities. We recommend keeping this practice to a minimum. If using malt extract, keep it to 40% or less of your total fermentables. If you use non-malt sugars, keep them to 15% or less. At these percentages, these additions should have no significant impact on the flavor of your beer.

Hops: We once read somewhere that it’s impossible to add too many hops to a barleywine. After our first home-brewed test batch of barleywine, we no longer believe that to be an accurate statement. Even so, you can add an enormous amount and still make a well-balanced beer. Barleywine IBUs usually run in the 50–90 range, and some even break 100. Keep in mind that barleywine usually has a high terminal gravity, which helps to balance all that bitterness. High-gravity brews will also have lower hop utilization, so you will need to add proportionally more hops (3–5%) to the kettle. We suggest using high alpha-acid hops for bittering, which will reduce the volume of hops required and thereby reduce the amount of wort lost to absorption by the hops. Using high-alpha hops will also help prevent the vegetable flavor you can pick up from boiling too large a hop mass.

As for finishing hops, you can go in any number of directions. There are no hard and fast rules. Unlike the systems devised for the measurement of bitterness hops, no good quantitative system exists to help in determining desired amounts of late addition or finishing hops. Furthermore, there are few conventions for types of finishing hops to use. Conventional brewing wisdom and widespread opinion dictate certain varieties as being particularly suitable for flavor and aroma additions, but whether the varieties used are traditional or newfangled, finishing hops should be chosen subjectively for their flavor and aroma. One of the best ways to tell if a particular hop variety will work for you is to take a couple of hop cones or pellets, rub them between your palms, and then take a good whiff. This will give you an idea of what the hop aroma will be like in your final product, and whether you like it.

The amounts of finishing hops used run the gamut too. British barley wines have little or no hop aroma, whereas their American counterparts are often flush with a floral and/or spicy nose. Just remember that hop aroma is the first thing lost in an aged beer.

Yeast: You will need a good, healthy ale yeast culture that is highly alcohol-tolerant and at least a medium attenuator.

We always use an active culture, preferably from a previous, recent fermentation. If you are using a new culture, make sure you grow a good, strong starter so that you will have enough yeast for the correct pitching rate. The proper pitching rate for any beer is 1 million cells/mL/°Plato. So, for a 1.092 (23 °P) barleywine, you will need 23 million healthy yeast cells per milliliter of wort. That’s a lot of yeast. If you fail to pitch the proper amount of yeast, you will not get the proper attenuation, and the resulting beer will be too sweet and unbalanced. A beer with too many unfermented simple sugars will also be more susceptible to bacterial infection during prolonged storage. If you don’t have access to a microscope and a hemocytometer to determine the proper pitching rate, we advise pitching 2 or 2½ times the regular pitching volume, or weight, that you would use for a beer of 1.050 original gravity. We also recommend that you avoid the use of nonbeer yeasts, such as Champagne or wine yeasts, as they will bring flavors to the end product that are not normally found in beer.

Aeration: Equally as important as using a strong, healthy yeast starter is ensuring an adequate supply of oxygen for the yeast to use. It is impossible to put too much air or oxygen into the cooled wort before pitching. Without the proper levels of oxygen in the wort, the yeast will perform poorly. It will peter out and leave you with an unattenuated, cloying beer. Besides being too sweet, a beer with unfermented simple sugars like that will be more susceptible to bacterial infection during prolonged storage. The best way to assure that you get enough oxygen into the wort is to aerate during the entire knockout (cooling) process.

Fermentation: Fermentation is an exothermic reaction, and temperatures can climb quickly. High-gravity beers can work themselves into a heated frenzy if left to their own devices. You will have to watch the fermentation temperature carefully. We recommend keeping the fermentation temperature between 66° and 70 °F (19–21 °C). High-gravity fermentations naturally produce more esters. Higher-temperature fermentations will produce even more esters and higher alcohols. The two combined (high gravity and high fermentation temperature) can create some pretty strange-tasting beers. On the other hand, if the temperature is too low, your ale yeast may quit on you. If this happens, you may need to “rouse,” or stir up, the yeast to help keep it in suspension. Rousing will aid in fully attenuating your beer. With some highly flocculant strains of yeast, keeping them in suspension is the only way to achieve the desired terminal gravity.

Aging: After active fermentation is finished, leave the beer “warm” (at fermentation temperature) for another 1–3 weeks to allow the yeast time to reduce diacetyl and other by-products of fermentation. Then, chill it down to 34–38 °F (1–3 °C) for aging. Most brewers agree that high-gravity beers such as barleywines require longer aging times. We like to give a barleywine a minimum of 90 days of cold storage before packaging. This time frame allows the flavors to meld together and mellow. But if you’re patient, we have found that most barleywines improve with 1–2 years of post-packaging aging. Some can go for more than 10 years before showing signs of serious negative effects. As a rule of thumb, the higher the starting gravity or the lower the hop rate, the better a barleywine will age.

Alcohol, of course, functions as a preservative; hence the benefit of higher starting gravity. The reason that less-hopped barleywines age better is that the hop component tends to break down first, usually within 1–3 years. The hoppier barleywines peak at about 2 to 2½ years of age. The flavors in the less-hopped barleywines seem to fare better over the long haul.

Wood aging. A new development worth mentioning in the world of beer is maturing (or aging) in wood. Wood and its effects on flavor have been well known in the wine and distilling industries for hundreds of years. These industries’ products are dependent on the flavors, balance, and round mellowness that can come only from aging on wood. Some brewers in America have started to age their bigger beers on wood and are experimenting with secondhand barrels from other industries such as whiskey distillers, vintners, and sherry and port producers. The few that I have tasted (many are still aging) have been very exciting. The contact with the wood (and the remainder of its previous contents) subtly changes the beer and imparts some really wonderful flavors. Greg Hall at the Goose Island Brewery in Chicago aged some of his imperial stout in Jim Beam barrels, and the resulting beer was delicious. We look forward to seeing more of these wood-aged beers in the future.


Stylistically Speaking


As with all beer styles, the parameters of what is considered a barleywine have ebbed and flowed over time. It has gone from a nameless smoky (and at least slightly lactic) big beer made from the first runnings of a medieval innkeeper’s small brewery, to a massive medium-to-dark brown beer with its own designated style name around the turn of the century, to a deep golden brew that neared extinction in the 1950s and 1960s, to the often well-hopped and varying characteristics of the microbrewed examples of the 1990s. So just what constitutes a barleywine?

The overall style guidelines for one of the world’s oldest beer styles must necessarily be fairly liberal to allow for a variety of colors and shades, and a myriad of bittering levels. The only really solid set-points are the minimum starting gravity, the resulting alcohol content, and the fact that it needs to be brewed with an ale yeast.

Big beer: A barleywine must be a big beer; the starting gravity should be at least 1.080, and it must have an alcohol content of 8% or greater (v/v). Anything less would be, well, just a strong ale. It’s possible for the starting gravity to run up to 1.125, but a barleywine becomes almost undrinkable after that. The terminal gravity can go as low as 1.010, but it is more common to see it running between 1.015 (for the drier ones) and 1.040 (for the sweeter examples).

Color: The colors can range from a deep gold (using 100% pale malt), through red and russet, to dark brown, but not opaque. If you make an opaque black barleywine, it really is more correctly called an imperial stout. And that’s a whole ’nother animal.

Bitterness: It can be argued that the American microbrewery renaissance has breathed new life into the barleywine category. The renewed interest has even created a new subcategory: American barleywine. Generally speaking, it is the bitterness that differentiates these beers from their British counterparts. The British favor a sweeter, rounder, and longer-aged barleywine than their ex-colonists. In a country steeped in tradition where most people’s houses are older than the U.S. government, the brewers are more likely to give the beer the additional time it needs to age. As mentioned earlier, this aging rounds out the rougher edges and diminishes the hop character somewhat. In England most of the barleywines are a bit low on bitterness, with IBUs around 35 to 55. These levels may seem high for the “low end,” but keep in mind that these beers have a lot of residual sweetness to balance the hops.

On the East Coast of the United States, however, the IBUs typically run a little bit higher, from 45 to 75, with a few notable exceptions such as Brooklyn Brewing’s well-made and very well-balanced “Monster.” The brewer, Garrett Oliver, has balanced the high hop rate with a huge malt bill to make for a very drinkable BIG beer. On the western side of the States (and especially in the Northwest) hops abound without any logical parameters. The bitterness level in some beers may push the envelope beyond 100 IBUs, but most are found in the 60 to 85 range. These hoppy barleywines are often lighter in color than those brewed in other parts of the world and thus lack some of the sweetness and balance that come from nonpale malts. They are often a celebration of hops, having not only big hop bitterness but also heady hop flavor as well. And although these beers lean towards the bitter side of the spectrum, they are usually very tasty and drinkable beers.

As most American thrive on and seek out the new and the innovative rather than the traditional, things on this side of the pond may continue to change rapidly and, one hopes, lead to more experimentation in this (and other) beer styles — leading to two (and arguably three) distinct substyles of barleywine.


Let It Grow on You


One last suggestion: Since barleywine does improve with age, make sure that you vintage-date the packaging. Be sure to set a few bottles or cases aside for yourself. Over the coming year you’ll be able to go to that reserve stock, pull out the special vintage bottles and share a taste with other visiting brewers or selected friends. You will impress them with your patience. You’ll be able to linger over the round and mellow flavors that come only from time and care, and you’ll be amazed to “see” (taste) these big beers change and develop.

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