How To Brew American Barleywine | Homebrew Challenge

by Steve Thanos | Updated: April 1, 2021

American Barleywine began to take shape on the shores of the United States in 1975 thanks in large part to Anchor Brewing Company. Sierra Nevada followed up with their own version called Bigfoot in 1983. 

While the first barley wine was brewed in England some hundred years prior, the style took off in America. Often the Barleywine is the strongest beer in a taproom these days. 

The American barleywine is big and bold beer that carries a hoppiness and bitterness much greater than its predecessor.

As the story goes Sierra Nevada had their barleywine analysed in the lab. When the lab called Sierra Nevada and told them their beer was “too bitter,” Sierra Nevada said, “thank you.”

With alcohol strength reaching eight to twelve percent by volume and brewed with a specific gravity as high as 1.120, the barleywine reaches strengths close to wine.

No doubt about it, this beauty of a style is brewed from grain and not fruit and is a beer through and through. However, much like wine, a good Bareleywine gets better with age. 

The true beauty or art of this style is the balancing act a brewer must play when trying to delicately harmonize the malty sweetness with the bitter hoppiness. With an IBU range high of one-hundred IBUs, it is one of the most bitter beers in the BJCP styles guidelines

Some commercial examples that exemplify the style include: Avery’s Hog Heaven Barleywine, Anchor’s Old Foghorn, Great Divide’s Old Ruffin, Rogue’s Old Crustacean, Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, and Victory’s Old Horizontal. 

Style Profile for American Barleywine

Appearance

American barleywines are light amber to medium copper in color with ruby highlights. There is a moderate-low to large off-white to light tan head.

Due to the high alcohol content, there may be low head retention. Clarity is good. Alcohol level and viscosity may present “legs” when the glass is swirled. 

Aroma

The hop aroma can be moderate to assertive, with mostly citrusy or resiny notes of American or New World hops. Moderate to bold malt presence supports the high hop profile with a medium to dark caramel, bready backbone.

Low to moderately-strong fruity esters and alcohol aromatics. Alcohol aroma subsides with age. Hops are equal to malt in aroma.  

Flavor

Strong malt presence with a very noticeable and balanced hop flavor and bitterness. Moderately-low to moderately-high malt sweetness with a finish that can be sweet to quite dry. Hop bitterness ranges from moderately strong to aggressive.

High hop flavor usually ranges to American or New World hop varieties. Low to moderate fruity esters. Noticeable alcohol presence. Flavors will smooth out and decline over time. Any oxidized character should be muted and masked by the hop character.

May have some caramel malt flavor or some bready characteristics, but not very high. Roasted or burnt malt flavors are inappropriate.  

Mouthfeel

Full-bodied and even chewy with a velvety texture. Alcohol warmth should be noticeable but smooth. Beer should not be syrupy and under-attenduated. Carbonation may be low to moderate, depending on age and conditioning.  

Food Pairing

American strong ales pair well with bold, robust meals such as sweet, rich caramelized flavors like roasted duck, pork chops, Mexican dishes, smoked brisket, pizza, beef stew, Italian sausage, and finally pasta with a rich marinara sauce. 

Tips for Brewing your own American Barleywine

Grain

A starting point for the base grain is Maris Otter. I know this is supposed to be an American style Barleywine. However Maris Otter will give wonderful bready notes that will work well with this style.

A touch of Vienna will add the small amount of spice that American 2-Row just can’t offer. Some twelve ounces of Victory and Special B will amp up the toasty and dark-caramel flavors that are needed for the style.

Some flaked barley, about a pound, will give the beer a solid mouthfeel and aid in head retention. 

Hops

American hops really should be showcased in this beer. A traditional bittering charge at 60 minutes is a nice place to start with your hop schedule. Something like Chinook or Simcoe will give the beer a nice bitterness.

After bittering hops, the sky’s the limit with how much or little hops you want to add. Cascade, Citra, Columbus, Centennial, Amarillo, Simcoe, Warrior, Mosaic, or Chinook are always a good way to start when thinking about the hop schedule.

Hopping with New World hops like Galaxy, Nelson Sauvin or any of your favorite hops from New Zealand or Australia will work here too.

Dry hopping is very common with the style and encouraged to extract more hop aroma and flavor in your beer. 

Yeast

The yeast for a double IPA should be well attenuating strain with a clean, neutral character.

Some options include: While Labs California Ale (WLP001), California Ale V WLP051, Wyeast American Ale 1056 or Northwest Ale 1332. Imperial Yeast’s selection of yeasts are also a good choice.

A18 Joystick, A20 Citrus, A24 Dry Hop are only a few of the wonderful yeasts produced by Imperial Yeast. 

American Barleywine By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 10 – 19 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.080 – 1.120 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.016 – 1.030 FG
  • IBU Range: 50 – 100
  • ABV Range: 8.0 – 12.0%

Martin Keen’s American Barleywine Recipe

Grain

  • 37 %              7 lbs.             Maris Otter  
  • 37 %              7 lbs.             Vienna Malt
  • 11 %              2 lbs.             Biscuit Malt
  •   5 %              1 lb.               Caramel 80L
  •   5 %              1 lb.               Flaked Barley
  •   5 %              1 lb.               Sugar; Corn Dextrose

 Hops

  • 1.00 oz         Galena – Boil – 60 min
  • 1.00 oz         Cascade – Boil – 5 min
  • 1.00 oz         Northern Brewer – Boil –  5 min 

Yeast

  • 1.0 pkg   American Ale  Wyeast #1056

Directions

  1. Mash at 152°F (66°C) for 60 mins
  2. Boil for 60 mins 

Transcript: Oh, these little ol’ things.

So some brewing buddies have been telling me about this thing called barkeepers friend. It’s supposed to be a good way of cleaning stainless steel appliances.

Uh, look, I’ve got two brew buckets here, both of which are clean. Just washed them with water. But, uh, this one here, I gave a very cursory 32nd wipe down with this bar keepers friend stuff,… shiny!

Now my name is Martin Keen and I’m taking the Homebrew challenge to brew 99 beers in 99 weeks. And this week I am revisiting the style of Barleywine, specifically American barley wine.

So a few months back, I tried English Barleywine. This time we’re going stateside and this being an American beer it’s, uh, just in one word, bigger! It’s bigger and gravity and bigger in hops.

Going for a nice, fine crush of 0.03 Inches in my grain mill. So hopefully I can be pretty efficient with this batch, uh, whisk? Mashing this at 149 Fahrenheit or 65 Celsius. I’m going to mash this one maybe for a little bit longer than usual given that I am only at 149 Fahrenheit. So probably for around 90 minutes.

Now the style of American Barleywine should really give you a rich, intense malty character. But it also comes with a fair amount of hop bitterness, flavor and aroma as well. So, whereas with my English Barleywine, I added bittering hops and that was it.

With the American barleywine I’m really going to better this quite high, but I’m also going to be adding in some flavor and aroma hops at the end of the boil.

My recipe is going to be quite heavy at 10%. Although the style allows you to go up to around 12%, but I’ve got an original gravity here of 1.091 Uh, yeah, that’s, that’s a lot.

Um, the way that I’m going to get that is I am combining as my base malts, Maris Otter and Vienna malt at 37% each. To that, I will add 11% of biscuit malt, and then 5% of crystal 80 and 5% of flaked barley. And the remaining 5% will come in the form of corn sugar, which I’ll add in the boil.

So let’s talk then about fermenters. Over the years, I have fermented in all sorts of things from plastic buckets to carboys, to conical fermenters, to pressurized fermenters, to even kegs, but I’ve been looking to upgrade my fermentation capabilities and I’ve had two criteria in mind.

Firstly, I want my fermenters to be able to take advantage of my Blichman glycol chiller. I don’t be using chest freezers anymore for temperature control. I want everything to be handled through this glycol chiller. And the second criteria is for the fermenter to be able to operate under pressure.

So I want to be able to do things like cold crash without introducing oxygen and also perform a pressurized transfers directly into kegs. And nearly forgot this there’s actually a third criteria as well. I need the fermenter to be able to hold five gallon batches, but quite often I ended up brewing two and a half gallon batches like I’m doing today.

So the fermentors that I pick need to be able to support both five gallon batches and also two and a half gallon batches.

As I started to do some research, it became obvious that Spike brewing had everything that I needed. So I have been hooked up here with two fermenters from spike brewing. Thank you, Ryan. And I’m going to be demonstrating these on the channel from here on in.

So there’s two here. I’ve got the spike flex plus, and then the spike brewing CF five conical. I’ll be using the CF5 Conicle next week. So let’s start off by taking a closer look at this guy, the flex plus.

Now the first impression I got when I pulled this out of the box is this is a well made solid piece of kit that I feel like is going to last me years. Um, but the other thing that I thought about when I saw this is Holy heck what have I let myself in for? This looks really complicated.

There are a lot of different ways that you can use this. It’s a very flexible system, flex plus = flexible. Maybe that’s where they got the name. Um, so you’ve got all of these tri clamp ports on this thing. So you’ve got one here at the front and then another one here at the side. And then on the lid, you have another one and a half inch tri clamp port up here and then a bigger four inch port at the top.

So you can put different things in different parts of the fermentor, also can be really locked down here and pressurized up to 15 PSI. So you can do things like closed transfers and pressurized fermentation in here.

So let’s take a look at all of the components and how I’ve got this set up for right now. So the front here, I’ve got my butterfly valve, this just opens and closes the valve here. I’ve then got this second port here, which I’m using as a therma well, which will come in handy when I connect this onto my glycol chiller.

Then on the top here, I’ve got a little area for an air lock, but you can also get accessories like this 90 degree barb. And just put this on. Instead, if you wanted to create a blow off tube and just hook this up. For this big port on the top. Well, you can just get a blanking plate for this. I think you can also get a clear plate so you can actually look in the fermentor and see what’s going on.

I’ve got something else in here though, and that is a cooling coil. So this is where I’m going to send glycol in and out of my fermentor. This will get nice and cold and be in contact with the beer. You can see that the inside of the lid has this O-ring here, which helps with the pressurized seal. And we’ve got the thermal well in here and also the racking arm.

One cool little feature is that this racking arm has a notch here on the outside. So you can see the position of the racking arm. So when this pointing down, the racking arms pointing down, and if I twist this, then the racking arm is twisted as well. So I can actually make sure that the racking arm is at the angle that I want it when I am draining out of here.

Now, there are a bunch of accessories as well. Things like a carbonation stone and a clean in place kit. I’ll show those in the coming weeks as I get more familiar with these fermenters. Um, but the thing I need to do now is to hook this thing all up to my glycol chiller. I’ve got a pump and a temperature controller, which I’m going to put on my glycol chiller. And then I have this insulated line that will connect the two.

In addition to that, this guy is going to get a jacket.

Hops wise: big bear, big IBU. Going for about 84 IBU. I’m going to get most of that through my bittering hop, which I’m going to add right at the start of the boil here. That is Galena. And in fact, it’s ready to go right now.

And five minutes from the end, I’m going to add some flavor and aroma hops. I’ve got a combination here of cascade and Northern brewer. So we’ll get some fruity aromas and flavors. Also a little bit of sort of earthy Woody flavor as well from the Northern brewer. That’s going to go in with five minutes to go. And at about that time as well is when I’m going to add in my sugar for a five gallon batch, you would add in one pound of sugar.

One slight problem here. I have actually made a little bit less than two and a half gallons. And that means that the temperature probe thermo well is not actually in the beer. It’s slightly above the liquid line. So that is something to keep an eye on. If I make a two and a half gallon batch, um, I need to make sure I’ve delivered two and a half gallons. Otherwise I can’t use this thermo well here.

Now, a big beer like this, you are absolutely going to want to add some oxygen into this thing. So I’m going to use my oxygen wand here just for a minute or so to really make sure that the yeast are going to have enough oxygen to work with.

I did sanitize the lid. Going to add my yeast. I am using wyeast, 1056 American ale yeast it should be able to handle this high gravity beer. And my original gravity did end up coming in at a 1.090.

For this clamp spike brewing recommend you just clamp this hand tighten as much as you can and sanitizing my cooling coil here. So let’s put that in.

Let’s add an airlock and I almost forgot about my Tilt Hydrometer, I’m going to drop this in too.

So everything’s in and I’m going to hook it up to the glycol. So in my Blichman and glycol chiller, I have added a pump and a temperature controller, which I’m going to set to 68 Fahrenheit, 20 Celsius. That is the temperature I want the beer to ferment at. Um, then coming out of the back of this is this insulated tubing, which is where the glycol will flow. And I’m just going to plug that into the top here.

As for the temperature probe, because I can’t use the thermal well, I’ve tucked the probe into the back of the jacket here. There’s a little hole at the back of the jacket. Um, so it’s going to just sit on the outside of this fermenter measuring the temperature. I think that’ll get me actually pretty close to the temperature of the liquid.

All right. Time to plug in the pump and let the glycol do its thing. Okay. The glycol is flowing because the wort temperature is reported to be 71 degrees rather than 68. So it will just recirculate through that cooling call until we get to two 68 and then maintain that temperature.

So today’s tasting is six months in the making. Okay. So you’ve said a lot about like better with age. Yeah. Which, why is this? Well, the thing is though it hasn’t actually been six months since I brewed this American barley wine.

Um, this is actually a new, about six weeks old, but there’s a little surprise to come. So let’s just move, move into looking at this beer first of all, um, what you think? Looks kind of orange. Deep orange, you cannot see through this light does not pass through this drink. My goodness.

I’m getting a hop aroma with this one. What about you? Okay. So it smells very subtle and it doesn’t smell too overwhelming for what I would think of barley wine is and what it looks like. Right. It looks overwhelming. Yeah. It looks like it’s going to be quite the adventure. Um, I want to try it. Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s do it.

Oh, it is thick And sweet and heavy. And that is, um, got a lot going on. Yeah. It’s, it’s very thick. Definitely a sipper. Yeah. Not a chugger. The sweetness once I tried it, I think that I, I know that I smell the sweetness a little bit more. Um, yeah. I think there is a lot going on.

I think it would improve with age. I wish I’d been organized enough to brew this six months ago, but you know what? I did brew an English Barleywine six months ago. And I kept it. I’ve uh, I’ve been keeping some of my beers and just stashing them, uh, here in the basement. So want to give one a try? I think so.

So this is the aged English barley wine, but I still think we’re missing something. Yeah. I think we need another taster. Hi!

Why are we so close?

I seem to remember you tried the English barleywine. I was, it was me, uh, that is very strong. No, that has a very strong like coats the mouth, I would say like thick.

So last time you said that you thought this tasted a little bit like Brandy, to me, it almost tastes like the beginning of a liquor. Liquory. Yeah. That’s the correct term. You can look that one up Webster’s. Liqoury or licoricey? No, definitely more like liquor, like not beer, but it almost has like a sort of whiskey type flavor.

I’ll tell you what it tastes different from last time. It’s definitely matured. Full of body I would say. It’s all right. I think you like that. Yeah. I think as like an after-dinner drink, Brandy sort of a style drink, it works quite well as like a dessert beer. I don’t even know if that’s a thing, but for sure.

The one thing that I was most interested in is does it taste different or does it just going to taste stale or something after six months? I think it tastes different. I think it tastes more complex. Well, thank you all for tasting this beer.

Maybe in six months, we should do like the American Barleywine after six months and then this barleywing after a year. Cool. We’ll see. Yeah, but for now. Cheers!

I am the former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.