By Jeffrey Gredlein
The Beer Snob

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A few weeks back, a really bitterly cold night prompted me to drink, research the back-story of American Barleywine, and write about this often feared style of beer. For those that have sought out examples of our indigenous big beer, you may have discovered for yourself just how complex, delightful-yet-dangerous this hopped-out American version of England’s richest beer can be. And, if you’re like me, and find that sometimes the New School can be just a bit too boisterous, it may be time to revisit the originators, and see just what a classic ‘strong ale’ is all about.

The history is a bit cloudy as to when the different styles of strong ale sparated out. At some point, likely near the end of the 18th century, it would have been quite a chore to distinguish an English barleywine from an old ale, or a stock ale, or a strong ale for that matter. It seems these names were somewhat interchangeable.

All three types of English strong ale were made with the first pull or sample, originally called the first running, of a brew. This mixture that would eventually yield a high gravity beer. Both old and stock ales would have been aged in casks or wooden barrels to mellow out the sweet and strong flavors. However, stock ales were more highly hopped compared to old ales. Barleywine, a similar strength beer with even more hops, did not hit the commercial market until the end of the 19th century, with the fabled Bass #1, which many consider the first marketed barleywine, being introduced in 1903.

As an old ale would age, its bitter flavor would diminish as some of the wood notes would be imparted to the beer; the style was and is still a noticeably sweet beer, and what little hops that were used in brewing would likely be lost in the flavor over the aging process. Offering more of a hop profile and more strength, it’s the inclusion of English hops that make the barleywine distinct from old ale.

English barley wines vary in appearance, but are malty, often sweetly fruity and rich, and certainly powerful. Expect generous amounts of pale and caramel malt, with just a touch of dark malt. English hops and yeast will be distinct, although neither will overwhelm the malts, and the hop flavors will dissipate over time.

Strong ale has become somewhat of a blanket term used in American brewing for ‘bigger’ beers that don’t fit nicely into a category. Stock ale has fallen out of favor as a style or moniker for any type of beer. And old ale is almost exclusively a style unto the English, although a few American craft brewers make quality versions of this Brit sipper.

Even today, it may be a feat to distinguish between an English old ale and a barleywine.

A highly-recommended classic English old ale is Fuller’s Vintage Ale. Rich malts, notes of caramel and dark fruits, the tiniest bubbles make this one of the smoothest ales you can experience. The brewery suggests waiting 3 or more years to catch this 8.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) beer at its best.

A true English barleywine can be found in J.W. Lees Vintage Harvest Ale. This beer employs the fresh hops and malts of a new crop with stellar results. At 11.5 percent ABV, this is a knockout of flavor levels and tongue twisting complexity. Alcohol abounds, but hops will slowly leave with every year this beer spends in the cellar.

A truly unique American brewed beer, Old Stock Ale from North Coast starts life as an English barleywine, using Maris Otter malt and Fuggles and East Kent Goldings hops. At 11.9% ABV, this beer begs to be cellared, and after a few years you will be able to experience, in my opinion, one fantastic and luscious old ale. Enjoy the brews … Cheers.

Gene's Haufbrau has at more than 200 beers in bottles or on tap. While they don't have every beer the Beer Snob writes about, they probably have most. Gene's is located at 817 Savannah Hwy. 225-GENE. E-mail the Beer Snob at