After Dry January, February may be the month best suited for celebrating strong beers.
We’re talking dark, malty, high-gravity and barrel-aged beauties that fit the bill as winter warmers.
From my cellar, barrel-aged barley wines and old ales are it. I’m especially fond of classic British styles, which historically go back to the early 1800s, and tend to reach toward 12% ABV.
Brooklyn brewmaster Garrett Oliver wrote that great British barley wines exhibited “all the depth, complexity, smoothness, body and power of the finest tawny port.”
First brewed in 1968 to commemorate the British author, Thomas Hardy’s Ale went out of production in 1999. It was reborn and produced by O’Hanlon’s Brewery in 2003, then went away again in 2008. But in 2015, Hardy’s was revived once more, and continues to be available in very limited quantities with 2022 being the latest vintage.
Still rare, but more readily available, J.W. Lees Harvest Ale is a limited-edition vintage barley wine that’s “made but once a year.” At 11.5% ABV, it’s a lovely amber color and evolves as it ages, displaying toffee and sherry notes and getting sweeter and less bitter.
When it comes to American barley wines, Anchor Old Foghorn was the first. It was introduced in 1975, and remarkably, it’s still brewed in the historic English style. Dry-hopped and carbonated using “bunging” to produce Champagne-like bubbles, the mahogany ale is cellar-aged and bottled at 8% to 10% ABV. Anchor recommends sipping it after a meal.
Introduced in the winter of 1983, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot is one of the best and most readily available American barley wines. Each new vintage is dated, making it easier to cellar. Brewed with caramelized malts and Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops, it easily balances luscious bittersweet aromas and flavors.
Not a barley wine, Scotland’s Ola Dubh (“Black Oil”) is an old ale made in collaboration between Harviestoun Brewery and Highland Park Distillery. Aged in whiskey casks, it’s a heady brew with Old Engine Oil Craft Stout as the base beer. With notes of bittersweet chocolate and a hefty whiskey presence, it’s a convivial 8% ABV sipper for a cold winter night.
Around Atlanta, There Taverns 9th Anniversary Ale is a 12% English barley wine aged 13 months in 8-year-old Willett bourbon barrels. A touch of turbinado sugar makes for a toasty, full-bodied beer.
And from Orpheus Brewing, Room A Thousand Years Wide is a 13.9% barley wine-style ale that was aged in a Baker’s 13-year bourbon barrel and “transformed by time in the wood and reborn into something new.”
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