The throes of winter dictate drinking beers appropriate for the weather. In the cold, bleak, and borderline misanthropic lulls of cold and snow, it’s almost mandatory to imbibe the higher, darker side of the brew universe.
Imperial stouts, barleywines, and the plethora of barrels to age them in become king.
Personal bias, I lean towards English style barleywines. I already don’t enjoy malty, piney, overly bitter DIPAs, so the American style, to me, is essentially a really shitty D/TIPA, of sorts. I don’t know exactly who came up with the idea of “let’s hop the piss out of this malt monster” (probably going to blame Sierra Nevada or Dogfish Head), but I hate them.
Not that I’ve ever had Thomas Hardy, but even JW Lee’s blasts on all cylinders, especially when you hit the vintage game. Caramel, figs, raisin, grain, hints of treacle, rum, and brown sugar… they way that god intended barleywines to taste.
The true rub, however, is two-fold – the first being that a well crafted barleywine will not be boozy or hot, despite the higher ABV (which should be at least 10%, in my opinion) and the second being that you need to use the proper grains. The grist of a barleywine is critical in the endeavor, beyond just contributing the flavors in the present. The joke I always tell people is that a good barleywine is genetically engineered to age.
When you hit that 5-10 year mark and you start getting the port/sherry/brandy notes, you know that you found something that was properly made.
After honing my idea on what I wanted for flavors, and having the need to fill a fresh whiskey barrel from John Emerald Distilling (which has 15 gallon whiskey and 5 gallon rum barrels currently available) after finding a post on /r/homebrewing on reddit, in the August of 2016 I set out on my journey to cross the pond with flavor.
The catch ended up being that there are certainly physical limitations to brewing a massive beer like this, mainly the obscene amount of grain used in the process. There’s only so much grain that you can force into one Igloo cooler. On top of that, traditionally, you should only be collecting the first runnings from the batch, also allowing you to opt in favor of the partigyle method (which also nets you a “free” second session brew in the process).
There is an answer on how to streamline the process past just doing two entire mashes, however – a reiterated mash. Chris Colby over at BYO does a great job explaining exactly what it is, but to simplify it even further: take your extravagantly large grain bill, and split it in half. Mash the first half as usual, collect your runnings, and then sparge up just enough to meet the amount of liquid that you’d need for your second mash. Reheat this combination of first runnings + some sparge, and use it to mash your second half of the grain bill. Collect your… first and a half runnings(?), and sparge up to your full boil level. From there, it’s business as usual. To be fair, he notes that you could even go so far for a third, but unless you’re trying to make a 17% monster without ice distilling or copious amount of extra sugar, you’re probably okay with just two.
Building out the skeleton of this beer, I automatically knew that I was going to be using almost entirely English ingredients, but I opted to go for a few special twists. The first is in the grains, being that I wanted the nice sweetness/tobacco/stonefruit flavors from Special B, as well as color, instead of just the raw sweetening power from “regular” crystal malts. I also wanted to include some melanoiden malt, which adds some honey and biscuit tones, but also helps bolster up the body of the beer while loaning a bit more color. The only other flavor that is slightly less traditional was my choice to add molasses to the barleywine.
For some reason, molasses is a flavor that I like. Certainly, it does only loan itself to dark beers because of its flavors, but it just manages to layer in so well with all the other tones going on.A key point here is making sure that you get molasses that’s the right type for what you want, as there is more than just one kind. Technically, cane syrup could be considered “light molasses”, with second boil molasses being the next level, and slightly darker, but what most people think of as “molasses” is the third boil – the blackstrap. The pitch black, semi-tar that your nana uses for those dickable cookies. You know, the one with Brer Rabbit on the front. Similar to hops, the more that you boil the cane juice, the more bitter the molasses gets. Knowing that, don’t expect this to taste anything palatable by itself. It needs to be mixed into something else.
It’s important to note that you need to get unsulphured molasses, unless you want your beer to get that eggy/fart vibe from your beer. It’s less common than it used to be, for sure, but just double check.
Batch Size: 5 gallons
Mash Temp: 152F for 60 min. (x2)
Boil Time: 90 min.
Batch Efficiency: 67% (on average, I guess)
Original Gravity: 1.096 // 22.9 P
Final Gravity: 1.019 // 4.8 P
SRM: 42.9 EBC // 21.7 SRM
- 8# Maris Otter | 42%
- 8# Golden Promise | 42%
- 1# Special B |5.3%
- 1# Melanoiden | 5.3%
- 1# Blackstrap/Full Flavor Molasses | 5.3%
- 1 oz. Bramling Cross @ 45 min.
- 1 oz. Fuggle @ 30 min.
- 1 oz. Bramling Cross @ 20 min.
- 1 oz. Fuggle @ 10 min.
- 1 oz. East Kent Golding @ 5 min.
- Wyeast London III (1318) – Fermented at 70F
- Safale S-04 – Added at bottling to insure carbing
There’s always a method to my madness. Well, usually. It might seem weird to be using three different types of hops on this beer, but there’s a specific reason, as all three contribute specific flavors to the beer. EKG and Fuggle are tried and true staples in the English beer world, known for their floral/spicy and earthy flavor contributions, respectively. But the Bramling Cross is a more recent favorite of mine. Predominantly, this hops varietal contributes a nice black currant and spice, ideal for that dried fruit flavor that I prefer in my bee-dubs. Marrying that with the subtle fruit flavors from the English yeast, the theory was sound from a recipe standpoint.
The reiterated mash was certainly an interesting experiment. Instead of trying to cram almost 20# of grain, mashing with roughly 10# was much easier. It wasn’t exactly that far off as doing a double brew day, minus doing two separate boils and chills. This is before I had acquired a pH meter, so I can tell how much adjustment I would/should have done, but so long as everything works out in the end, I guess I can’t really complain too loudly about anything.
Outside of that, this beer also spent 2 months in a freshly emptied whiskey barrel. I’m planning on doing an informational post eventually about my method for making your own oak cubes, designed to your specific preferences, but there’s only so much I can touch on with barrels. Essentially, the knowledge I can impart is that every distillery’s barrels will taste different, based on the qualities of the liquor inside of them. As far as treatment goes, you can go ham and make up a soaking solution with different acids and chemicals, but the easiest solution to sanitizing your barrel to prevent anything from getting into your fermented beer and ruining the party for everyone is heat – specifically steam or boiling water. I don’t exactly have the capacity to blast my barrel with 180F degree steam, but it was easy enough to boil a few gallons of water and fill the barrel the night before, then drain the water and fill the barrel immediately with beer. As far as I can tell, I succeeded, since the barleywine I brewed didn’t get infected.
With the fresh barrel, 2 months was plenty of time. The beer picked up plenty of the whiskey out of the wood. I think if I had let it go any longer, I’d have run the risk of almost being too heavy. At this point, it’s not so much hot boozy, as in fusel, but it is certainly slightly boozy as the flavor of the bourbon has at least one hand on the wheel of this monster.
As it was described by a friend of one of my trading partners, “this is the crust of creme brulee”. The toffee of the malts and vanilla of the oak and whiskey dutch rudder each other to a happy marriage of flavors. The base tones are rock solid, though. That figgy jam, slight tobacco, biscuity malt, and mild berry tones all form a reliable rhythm section to support the rockstar whiskey barrel flavors shredding lead guitar solos up in this bitch.
I think one of the main points I was so proud of with this one was the appearance of the beer. It hits that perfect mahogany/boot leather rusty-brown that I wanted. It looks like any of the real English boys should. I’ve never understood that super dark American take, but I think that ends up with that level of coloring because a good number of recipes that I’ve read (while researching this one) were also using or chocolate malts or roasted barley instead of Special B for coloring, which I enjoy in my stouts (for the jet black color and the roasty, dry charcoal flavor it contributes), but not as much in my barleywines.
To revisit the flavors, and to get a photo for this, I actually opened a 6 month old bottle of this one. Time has definitely done this mofo some justice.
The mouth feel is still supple, the carbonation tight, and there’s tons of lacing and head retention for days. It’s a little darker than I remembered, but in honesty, that could be some light oxidation. With the physical weight of this beer coming just short of the Castrol body I typically reserve for RIS’s, this is still definitely a sipper. I don’t see this being anything short of an hour long 12 oz. pour.
The nose is rum, raisin, tobacco, plum, and a hint of brown sugar, with some hints of pecan and toffee. A good deal of the bourbon has faded. The flavor follows a bit more closely to the nose but it has a good deal of bourbon still in it – vanilla, oak, caramel all pull through like ’09 Ryan Howard. There’s only a slight hint of booziness left, most of it had mellowed into the rest of the beer. The bitterness is still noticeable, but the flavor of this beer and the way that it coats the tongue hangs around like an angry dingleberry. This is no longer in creme brulee territory, this is straight up shoo-fly pie taking you by the tongue and doing some questionably legal things. And it’s good. The more it warms up, the more the flavors come out and I’m pretty sure in about 3 more degrees, I’m gonna have a barleywine Pride parade painting the town red in my mouth.
I’m looking forward to trying a bottle in another six months, and then in subsequent years. It looks like this is one of the beers that will stand the tests of time.