There are so many styles of wine in the world that it’s way too hard to keep track of them all. Even one killer wine list can send the best of us into a tailspin of doubt. Limitless possibilities are great, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed when somebody brings up a beverage you’ve never heard of.
Those inevitable shrug-filled moments are especially prevalent when it comes to a drink by the name of Barley Wine.
It says “wine” right there on the label, but it doesn’t really look like wine. It’s definitely alcoholic, pretty strong too, but is that label to be trusted? Is barley some hip new grape varietal? Isn’t it used to make beer? If a square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square, can a beer be wine but wine isn’t always a beer? What on earth is in that bottle?
Let’s make this nice and simple: Barley Wine is not wine, it’s beer.
Now let’s make it more complicated.
Barley Wine is a strong ale, a high ABV beer made with a top fermenting yeast and plenty of grain (ahem, barley). These super boozy beers are known to be big bodied and robust. They’re often thick, slightly sugary and do not pull any punches when it comes to flavor. This is not the kind of stuff that you pick up a six pack of, it comes in big (bombers or large format) bottles and is not to be chugged.
Before the days of craft beer and ABV obsessed brewers like BrewDog, your average beer wasn’t nearly as strong as it is now. It’s common to consume an IPA that contains 7% alcohol or an Imperial Stout at 10%, but it wasn’t always this way.
Your typical Barley Wine comes in at around 12 or 13% on the ABV scale, which means it’s as strong as your average bottle of wine. Because it is typically so full of sugar, it may exhibits flavors that are “wine-ier” than a lager or a “lighter” beer, but the use of the term wine has caused many makers, distributors and regulators a headache.
Perhaps its inventors (the Ancient Greeks) thought it was too strong, robust and fruity to be called beer. Perhaps they felt they had just made “wine” with barley, or they didn’t really have true “beer” yet. One thing is clear, it’s not made with grapes and it isn’t wine, it just happens to be as strong (and demands just as much respect) as good old fermented grape juice.