“This determined red comes forward with aggressive scents of plum, eucalyptus and blackberry. Surging flavors of currants and peaches flood the tongue before surrendering to a rounded finish of tobacco and coffee. Pair with stewed rabbit or wild boar, or anything else savory and Mediterranean.”
Mixed, matched, copied and pasted, the above stanza may serve a wine writer for a long and successful career. This sort of artful language distinguishes wine drinkers as people both refined in palate and eloquent of speech, but there is a crowd of imposters among us, bellying up to the tasting counter and borrowing from this fine vocabulary. Speak of the Devil, here’s one now! Listen closely:
“This tawny beverage comes forward with thick aromas of malt and butterscotch. Surging flavors of caramel, fudge and dried figs wash over the tongue before melting into a smoky chocolate finish that may last several minutes. Pair with stewed rabbit or a creamy brie.”
A little ambiguous, perhaps – it could be a port – but no: That was a description of a beer, believe it or not, and by the sound of it, it almost certainly was a barley wine. In case you’re unfamiliar, barley wine has no relation to the grape and is one of the “big brews” that has gained popularity in the past five years, along with the Belgian ales, Double IPAs and Imperial Stouts. The oldest records of barley wine date it back to the Dark Ages in Britain. It has always been a high alcohol beer, running from eight to 15 percent A.B.V., and this was initially a method of preserving the product. A pleasant side effect of the upped alcohol is the fact that a well-made specimen can age and improve for years – even decades. Meanwhile, barley wine carries a range of flavors vaster than anything else in its family, with enough depth and complexity to appease even the most demanding wine drinkers. Many aficionados even hold vertical tastings of barley wines to observe and contemplate the developments that have overcome a particular beer with the passing of the seasons.
And they describe them with words like these:
“This beautiful brew opens up with scents of molasses and Irish cream. Layers of maple syrup and subtle grain textures are followed by a finish of coffee and butterscotch. Enjoy with dark chocolate or strong cheeses.”
Mmm. That, I suspect, was Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Olde Gnarleywine, a wonderful dinnertime beer which I could not have described any more aptly. Twenty years ago, a beer would have been hard pressed to receive such praise, but today more and more beer fans are treating their favorite beverages much the way wine drinkers do. Beer, after all, has undergone a fast spurt of evolution with the rise of the microbreweries in the 1970s, and it is still maturing into a very respectable drink.
Yet it remains in a different world than wine, and that’s fine, because it’s a different thing. But why the contempt for beer which many fine wine-winos harbor?
Donald Barkley, master brewer at Mendocino Brewing Company in Ukiah, explains: “Before Prohibition there were 4,000 breweries in America. Afterward, there were 2,000, and that number got smaller as big breweries pushed for a consolidation of beer production.”
He says that these super-companies homogenized beer into something it had never been before: a light-bodied, flavorless liquid which quickly became tremendously popular as a refreshment to guzzle while riding a lawnmower or fishing on a lake for bass. And that is the unfair image that still lingers in the minds of the masses and which becomes horridly real as you stroll down to the far end of the supermarket beer aisle.
But Barkley, who began brewing his own barley wine – Talon – four years ago and other craft brewers are working to reclaim beer’s old and dignified reputation.
“Lighter beers have been on the market for so long that people are ready for something bigger. Barley wine is not something we expect to get rich off of, but beer drinkers are accepting it and there’s a definite cross-over into the wine category, where many wine drinkers have actually allowed it into their repertoire.”
And why not? Quality beer is affordable. While good wine goes two, four, or even eight dollars per ounce, the best barley wines rarely run higher than six or seven dollars for a 22-ounce bottle, and usually they’re four or five. In fact, if beer was simply more expensive I believe that more wine tasters would pick up a few bottles now and then to sip, swirl and spit. Funny, isn’t it, how we chug the cheap booze and spit out the good stuff?
Barley wine is traditionally a wintertime beer, but this summer Bison Brewing has plans to stir up a batch for the sultry weather, and other breweries will likely follow suit as the style grows in popularity. Many conventional supermarkets are not yet clued in to the trend of barley wine, but higher end specialty shops usually offer a selection. Keep your eyes peeled, and educate yourself in one of beer’s most wonderful secrets.
Barley wines to watch for:
Anchor Brewing Company’s Old Foghorn
North Coast Brewing Company’s Old Stock Ale
Rogue Brewery’s Old Crustacean
Mendocino Brewing Company’s Talon
Speakeasy’s Old Godfather
Marin Brewing Company’s Old Dipsea
Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Olde Gnarleywine