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Monday, May 06, 2013

Old-School Barley Wines and Other Thoughts

Fred with the BridgePort Old Knucklehead that bore
his likeness.  Credit:
In the year of Deschutes' birth, 1988, I was twenty years old--which is to say well into my drinking career.  The Northwest was getting into hops by then, but the trend hadn't cohered into the categories we have now.  When breweries wanted to stagger you with hops, they tended to go big and brew barley wines*.  In retrospect, this was an interesting layer in the sediment of craft brewing.  By today's standards, those early barley wines weren't especially huge--seems like nine to eleven percent was the range--but they were crazy unbalanced.  The hops were screaming banshees of grating Chinooks placed atop a gelatinous goo the flavor and consistency of caramel sauce--everything was baled together with the razorwire of higher alcohols.  A lot of these came in wee nip bottles, which was a kindness to the customer who had to handle the damn things with tongs and gloves.  Let them age a few years and they softened into the texture of worn saddle, but that was as gentle as they ever got. (Old Crustacean is still made to what looks like a pretty classic recipe.)

So that was barley wine. 

A few weeks past, during the time my blogging was quick and cheap, I got a bottle of Deschutes collaboration Barley Wine Ale.   The conceit of was that:
Deschutes Brewery, North Coast Brewing Company and Rogue Ales have teamed up to create a traditional barley wine as the first in Deschutes Brewery’s Class of ’88 collaboration series. Each of the three breweries working on the project brewed their own interpretation of that original recipe. The Class of ’88 Barley Wine was based on the guide lines published in renowned beer connoisseur Fred Eckhardt’s The Essentials of Beer Style, which was originally published in 1988.
I must report with ambivalence that Deschutes' reboot isn't the least bit old school.  It's much more along the lines of what we now, in this much more taxonomically-precise era, would call a double IPA.  Barley Wine Ale has a snickerdoodle malt base and a rich fruitiness that is accentuated by melon-papaya hopping.  (In 1988, melons and papaya were available mainly in fruit and candy form, and certainly not humulus lupulus.  We also had to walk barefoot in the snow for 14 miles to get to a pub in order to procure a bottle of molten barley wine.)  The alcohol is very well hidden, coming in just at the end, when the hops turn spicy.  It has a mousse-like satiny body, quite rich, which is the one way in which it deviates from the modern imperial IPA, but it is not a caramel bomb, as beers of the 80s inevitably were.

If you actually want something that evokes the 80s--in a palatable 2013 kind of way--you might prefer Babylon, a beer Ninkasi calls a double IPA.  The malt bill, though, which relies heavily on bready Maris Otter, actually makes Babylon more reminiscent of those crazy old barley wines.  It's not an exact match: there's no caramel (the rest of the grist is a melange of malts from different brewing traditions) and the hops are a lot more marmalade-y than alley-catty.  There are El Dorados and Horizons--modern--but also old-timey EKGs, Fuggles, and Targets, which also remind me of the old days.  But it is quite a bitter blast, and the malting is thick and syrupy (if short of gelatinous).  For those of you who are younger than me--something like 60% of the population--and who live the terrible, benighted lives of plenty, Babylon isn't a bad place to start.  Throw in a splash of gasoline for the full effect.

As a last comment to the geezers, I invite you to mention your own recollections of the 80s and their hoppy beers.  Perhaps I'm just misremembering the beers of the day.  This is unlikely, but I'll entertain the question.

*Barley wine, not barleywine.  That latter term came about because the government wouldn't allow Fritz Maytag to properly label his first batch of Old Foghorn.  Apparently they believed it would confuse consumers, who might mistake it for Chardonnay. 


  1. There were a lot of 80s beers that were extremely hoppy -- by the standards of the day. The first few batches of Widmer Alt were extraordinarily bitter; Karl Ockert's first Golden Ale had so many hops the lupulin left a coating on my teeth. Bert Grant's beers, especially his IPA, were over the top hoppy. Even his Scottish Ale was much too hoppy for the style, except that was his beer and he was convinced everything was underhopped. And I almost forgot Liberty Ale! The original Pyramid Ale would ruin anyone for other beer the rest of the evening; I think it may have been Jim Kennedy who suggested that the brewers couldn't possibly have squeezed another hop leaf into the kettle.

    In the late 80s, though, the rest of the drinking public wasn't ready for all those hops and to stay commercially viable a lot of brewers backed off.

  2. Well, I'm older than you and more of a geezer. I cannot recollect any barley wines from those days. I may have been late to the barley wine table. I do remember thinking some of Grant's beers were pretty hoppy. Hell, everything tasted hoppy if it wasn't a macro. Hales had a pale that was pretty hoppy for its day.

    I had a bottle of the Babylon via Morgan. I thought it was fairly bitter. Hops flavor and aroma was fairly muddled, lost in a blast of alcohol, I suppose. The backbone almost chewy. I thought it was heavy duty, but decent. Splash of gas not included, but not a bad idea.

    Bridgeport put various folks on the Old Knucklehead label over the years. Today's bonus question: Whose face was on bottling #1?

  3. The hop-heavy barley wine I remember from the '80s was Sierra Nevada Bigfoot. It was very alcoholic but searingly hoppy. Perhaps we have overlooked it in the years that followed, but it's still there. I haven't had it in years, but my memory of it is intact.