Once upon a time in craft beer’s ancient age — otherwise known as the late 1990s — the barleywine style of beer was the gold standard for microbreweries.
Back in the day, experimentation took a back seat to sustainability as brewers struggled to simply prove themselves viable as a business concept, so products offered were fairly mainstream across the board. To brew something as time- and resource-consuming as a barleywine was a bold and ambitious statement of both financial stability and brewing talent. It was also one of the few examples of a strong beer that made it to the consumer market long before it was overtaken by Russian imperial stouts, double and triple IPAs, and just about any other random beer style that could be slapped with “imperial” and dialed up to eleven (percent).
A barleywine, or “beer brewed to wine strengths,” is a shining example of the brewer’s skill and of utilization of fundamental grain flavors in a high-gravity beverage without relying on heavily roasted malts, a blanket of overwhelming hops or some other dominating flavor adjunct. It is an old and historic beer style, and one of the first to truly benefit from barrel aging techniques as an unhopped barleywine is essentially the starter for most malt-based distilled spirits such as whiskey and bourbon.
To ignore this beer style is a shame, as far too few barleywines are produced today even with our robust craft beer sector. Even examining Saint Arnold’s Bishop’s Barrel series shows how out-of-favor barleywines have now become, supplanted instead by hoppier cousins. Of the beers in this special brand, a line specifically designed to showcase barrel-aged products, six of the ten have been imperial stouts. Only the latest beer, Bishop’s Barrel No. 10, marks their sole barrel-aged barleywine.
We first encountered No. 10 last year when it was released as Saint Arnold’s 20th Anniversary Ale. That beer was good but not great, dark and malty but not heavy, still with a fresh hop bite and a mild roasty sweetness. In a way, it was a textbook ideal of the barleywine style, perfectly on point in every parameter but remaining academic, tasty but soulless. Including hints of dark fruits, figs and cocoa and a respectable depth of flavor, it was a beer way too green for its optimal serving. Even my personal notes include, “could be excellent after a year or two.”
Psychic powers must have synchronized with Saint Arnold brewers, as this is exactly what they did. They took their 20th Anniversary Ale and aged it in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels for exactly one year, and released it just recently for the Bishop’s Barrel series to glorious effect. The ruddy, bourbon flavors come through nicely with hints of a pinot noir or a rich demiglace, not strongly sweet but with definite hints of the wood used. More flavors of fresh plums, dark cherries, dried fruit, faint vanilla. Just the perfect amount of recipe, barrel wood and time.
Beginning at 11.2% ABV, a year spent in bourbon barrels elevated that only slightly to 12.7% and dropped about 15-20 IBUs off the original. This beer still has a slightly young character to it that further aging could only elevate, and it leans more to the American style than the English, but No. 10 is simply outstanding as it sits today.