Tasting Notes with Jim Beauregard: Barley wine: It's a beer, and it's complex

By JIM BEAUREGARD September 05. 2017 9:46PM

Firestone Helldorado is a limited-edition barley wine ale brewed in California. Only 7,000 cases were produced. 

Heads up! Today’s subject is rare. It’s limited-edition, and Bert’s Better Beers has less than a case of it in stock, so you might want to be there when they open later on this morning.

Barley is the main grain that provides carbohydrates for brewing beer. Its origins lie in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, which means modern-day Syria and Iraq.

It has been used for making bread for thousands of years, in that region and elsewhere. No one is quite sure when or where in that region people discovered how to break down the starch and barley into sugars that could be fermented into a beer.

Barley is a hardy plant, and nowadays it grows all over the world, all the way up and down to the subarctic regions. While it is not the most common ingredient for making bread nowadays, having been supplanted by wheat some time ago, it’s still a critical component in brewing.

This brings me to the topic of barley wine, which is actually a beer. The one we’re going to take a look at in a moment comes in an almost 13% alcohol by volume, higher than many grape wines out there.

The origins of barley wine appeared to be British, and the beer is brewed in a process known as “partigyle,” which began to be used in the mid to late 1700s among the rich in England. Historically, this was beer that was aged in wood casks for as long as a year, sometimes longer, just like wine is, before being bottled.

Barley wine isn’t just an English production anymore, and there are American craft brewers who are giving it a go. It’s hard to make, by all accounts, which is why it tends to be a bit expensive ($11 or $12 for a bottle in some cases), with a long and careful brewing process, and then aging in wood so that the components will integrate before the beer is released. Needless to say, the more involved the process, the higher the end cost. Sometimes, however, it’s worth it.

Barley wines are now made here in the United States, including on the West Coast as well as the East. The West Coast versions tend to be stronger in their hops profile. As a whole, barley wines in this country have gone from being generally darker amber color to being lighter, placing them in the “blonde” category sometimes.

Because of its labor-intensive nature, it’s a bit hard to come by, which is why when it’s around, it’s worth the stop. Let’s take a look at one that is available at Bert’s Better Beers in Hooksett while limited supplies last:

Firestone 2017 Helldorado Blonde Barley Wine Ale, 12-ounce bottle, 12.8% alcohol by volume, 24 IBUs; Firestone Walker Brewery, Paso Robles California. Seven thousand cases of this brew were made. A large white head covers a gold ale with some slight hints of amber, with a very strong nose that leans toward hops intensity, as is fairly typical of the West Coast. There’s fruit and citrus on the nose, as well as some hints of rum and grain. The beer has a slightly off dry flavor, with medium bitterness and medium-plus alcohol (remember it’s 12.8%), and the first sip, if you drink it right out of the bottle is fairly strong. It’s worthwhile to give it a bit of time to get some air and let things integrate. The alcohol character becomes warm and generous, and the body is medium with the medium texture. The flavors capture some of the wood, as well as fruit and citrus and some herbal notes. All in all, it’s a complex brew that gives one pause.

Contact wine and beer writer Jim Beauregard at tastingnotesnh@aol.com


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