Friday Froth: Snowed In With Barleywine

James Gribbon

Deep snow requires strong booze. Our ancestors knew it, we know it, and every year around the winter solstice we can see a certain class of beer made specifically for snow days start to take up shelf space. Barleywine is beer better served at 55º than 35º, and best enjoyed when it's 25º outside. It's usually sold in large format bottles of the 22-26oz. variety, and will wrap you in an invisible sweater of at least 10% alcohol. Blizzards are a good thing when you're properly stocked. 

Barleywine has been deployed as a winter knock out drop by bored or insufficiently rowdy residents of the frostier climes for centuries. It is NyQuil by another name, and it is a blessed boon to those of us who seek to replace the lost hours of sunlight with - in order - hijinks and oblivion. 

The 22oz. bottle's label is the color of the night sky, and features a snoozing crescent moon. Consider this to be foreshadowing. We are discussing Old Horizontal, which Victory calls a "Barleywine-Style Ale" in swooping script. This may be a ploy to class up the idea of barleywine, a style of beer both delicious and brewed with a purpose in mind. It is the craft-nerd's version of a nightcap. 

Old Horizontal pours clear caramel. Some will look in their glass and call this the Right Color for a barleywine. Others will look into their glass and wonder what else they can throw on the fire because no one's looking and you know that decorative globe is flammable.

The aroma is swimming with malts, already well marbled, and there's that caramel again. The initial rush of foam dissolves down, but the sheer amount of body the bubbles spring from makes this beer's head remarkably resilient. 

Old Horizontal hits you in a big way on first sip: the malts are deep, round, and heavily scored with rich veins of American hops. The varied species of barley, each toasted to its own way, lend a spectrum of toastiness. 
The flavor is at first sweet, then inverted into bitterness before being deglazed by eleven percents of ethanol. If a pint or two of this ale sends you to bed - even if it doesn't - your pants are coming off. Yes, indeed. 

(A final note: mine was a bottle from 2013, which is fine in this style of beer.)

I was lucky enough to be at the Two Roads brewery right around the limited release of their 20 Ton Barleywine early this winter. The "blonde barleywine" as they call it, I've never read that phrase anywhere before, pours a honey color with a medium head melting down into a lasting ring. The aroma is flooded with the graininess of converted barley, and slightly fruitier hop notes. There are honeyed aspects to drinking this one: sweetness, the slight sting from the alcohol, and a very smooth mouthfeel. 

20 Ton is certainly an American style barleywine, the hops add to the flavor with both a light apricot taste and a bitter tinge, just at the end of each sip. The blonde ale retains a more caramel sweetnes, with less of the toasty notes of darker, more heavily roasted barleywines, so the larger hop bill is a welcome couterbalance. This barleywine would be well used served with a cheese plate, as a digestif, or as a 12%ABV teleporter to beam you past a long night and into the next morning. 

One of the best-named beers I saw last year was Clown Shoes Crunkle Sam. That's just a fine label all around. You have to respect any beer telling you ahead of time that shit's about to get blown up. 

This American barleywine - they're very clear on that point - pours the color of a stained cherry dresser. It has a very thick head, as though the beer itself needs a layer of insulation. Crunkle Sam differentiates itself with a fresh, yeasty aroma unusual to a glass of barleywine. There is a deep, slightly sweet flavor common to the style, but with a dream of spice underneath, like maybe the barley was cayenne in a past life. Something about the interplay of the malts with the Citra hops, I suspect. 

I've liked several beers from Clown Shoes before, but I honestly didn't expect this barleywine to be this good. It's not hot with booze or syrupy sweet; it's tasty, off center, and just so cleverly made and clean for an 11% ale. Nice job by the brewers. If you can't find this one in stores now, Clown Shoes will re-release a summer batch this June and July. God bless America. 

See you out there.