Barley Wine, strong ale by any other name

By Paul Barry | Assistant Buyer: Beer & Spirits

Barley Wine, what's it all about?

Despite the name Barley wine is not a wine but a strong ale with a high alcohol content ranging from 8% to 13% and sometimes even higher. The term Barley wine was used as a marketing term to tempt wine drinkers to turn their attention to a beer instead. The first beer to be advertised as barley wine was Bass No. 1 dating from around 1870 however the descriptor was probably in use for far longer.


The style has its roots in eighteenth century England when brewers used a Parti-Gyle’ method of brewing, here two or three different and separate styles of beer were produced from a single mash. Basically, the first liquid taken out from the process (the first runnings) were high alcohol and big bodied with each subsequent running lighter and weaker than the last. These could then be blended together to achieve different specific gravities for different styles. Beers made primarily from the first runnings would be sold on to pubs, or to those wealthy to keep a private stock of ale, where it would be aged in barrel, sometimes for years. These high alcohol, big flavoured, barrel aged beers would demand a higher price.

Barley wines are also intended for bottle aging and can be cellared for years where they can develop some very desirable oxidative notes. At any stage in their life alcohol will perceptible in the flavour and depending on the brewer and age of the beer it can have a sticky resinous hop character or softer fruit tones. These are big, boldly flavoured beer with a thick chewy body and can have noticeable barrel aged flavours.


Nowadays you are more likely to see this style as a limited release. Barley wines are further broken down into two classes American style and English style. American is generally more hop presence and lighter in colour whereas the English style can have little to no hop presence, in general are softer and more rounded and can range in colour from deep gold to black. Due to the nature of these beers they are not usually available year round but if you do see one it worth picking it up. Dungarvan’s Gallows Hill is a good example of the English style while Sierra Nevada Bigfoot is a great one for the American style.


Due to the weight and residual sweetness of Barley wines they are not generally well matched to many foods. However, this residual sweetness means they work great with deserts such as rich moist cakes or toffee or caramel deserts. Barley wine can also work well as a digestif to serve with a cheese course with English Stilton a classic combination. Enjoy it from a snifter glass, served between 10° and 13°. Enjoy.

Please note prices are correct at time of publishing, please check our website or stores for the most up-to-date pricing.