Glass of barrel aged stout

© 2023, Randy Mosher / Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine

A strict definition for the term barleywine is of fairly recent origin, and according to respected beer historian Martyn Cornell, it’s dubious to apply it to a style. For centuries, it was a poetic way of referring to the stronger sorts of pale-ish beers available in Britain, but only appeared on a beer label about 1900 in connection with Bass Ale’s Number 1, a 10%+ Burton-style ale. 

Name notwithstanding, strong beers have been brewed for ages. Many were aged for a considerable period of time, while others were sold as soon as they hit the cask. This crucial distinction was consistently applied: “mild” simply meant an unaged beer, regardless of strength or color. “Old,” or in some references, “stale” beers were aged long enough to dry out and acquire a “vinous” character, but not too much acidity, for which remedies abounded. Aging required at least a year, and in estate-brewed beers often much longer: A character in Farquar’s Beaux’s Strategem, 1707, described his ale as: “smooth as oil, sweet as milk, clear as amber and strong as brandy and will be fourteen years old the fifth day next March.”

With porters and stouts, “vatted,” meant aged versions, stored in large tanks rather than barrels. By the 1850s, Tizard uses “old” and “vatted” interchangeably and notes in his day a “…general change in public taste in many places, from new to old…” His advice for vessels for “production of a pale, bright, aged, and sound article” is “underground tanks…lined with slate, to contain from 500 to 5000 barrels.” 

The unique aged flavor in these old ales is usually attributed to “wild” Brettanomyces yeast, the name of which means “British fungus.” Since its natural habitat appears to be in oak trees, its presence in wood-aged beers makes sense. But slate-lined tanks? It’s hard to reconcile, but Tizard indicates some brewers used a spontaneous process, which: “consists in merely vatting the worts directly from the coolers, trusting in their native ferment, and that left by the former gyle.” He also mentions a solera-type method in which a portion of old beer is removed from the tanks and replaced by fresh wort. It’s easy to see how persistent, but slow-growing Brett would be able to establish itself by either method. 

A Brett species called B. clausenii is most often associated with these beers. It’s typically said to have a tropical character; I get pineapple candy. While beers can be completely fermented with Brett, the norm is to use a Saccharomyces cerevesiae strain first, and pitch the slow-growing Brett strain after the beer is racked into its maturation vessel. 

Barrel-aged beers of today are unlike those of centuries past. Today’s beers are generally “rested” for months rather than aged for years, normally in second-use spirits or wine barrels of approximately 50 (US) gallons, while larger beer-specific ~130-gallon “butt” casks or larger “tuns” or vats would have been the historic norm. Prior contents and surface-area-to-volume ratio each impact the resulting flavor. 

Pictured at right: A barley wine in the traditional Georgian English “ale glass” used for strong ales in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Note the engraved hops design. The beers were consumed in endless rounds of toasting.

These strong British ales can be almost any color unless they’re inky enough to be called stouts or porters. The origin of the grand family of pale-ish, highly-hopped beers that eventually became India Pale Ales was a brew called “October” or “March” beer,” named for its brewing season. These were brewed for wealthy gentlemen on their estates, the ultimate homebrew. Tizard recommends the palest possible malt and minimizing color development with steam—as opposed to flame-fired—kettles. 

“Nut-brown ale” was an imprecise poetic term term for a beloved brownish strong brew especially popular in the north. Long before it brewed a drop of India pale ale, Burton-Upon-Trent was famous for a strong, ruby-colored ale that was sold in “mild” and “stale/old” versions. Similar to what we would think of as a “wee heavy,” by the end of the 19th century “old” became a synonym for Burton ale, especially in London, according to Cornell.

These were all strong beers, often marked with XXXX designations. Black (1833) gives a recipe for an equivalent “best” that works out to 21.6 pounds (9.8 kg) of pale “Chevalier” malt per 5-gallon (19L) batch; approximately 1.130 OG at 80% efficiency. Amsinck lists a “No. 1 Burton” from a similar time period at OG 1.1122.

Brewing the big beers

Strong beers can be challenging. In any brewery, only a limited amount of grain will fit into the mash tun, limiting a beer to perhaps eight percent alcohol unless optimized for strong brews. To solve this problem, a brewer can supplement the grist with malt extract or some form of sugar. Half-batches with more malt can be brewed—and combined if needed. Until industrialization, brewers in Britain solved the problem by “parti-gyle” brewing—using first and possibly second run worts for the strongest beers and with a fresh infusion, third and often fourth runnings for small ones. 

A laborious earlier method called “double” brewing used the strong first runnings to mash a batch of fresh malt. It’s time consuming and inefficient, but will produce the strongest possible wort purely by mashing. 

Brewers in the UK may have had access to a spectrum of pale ale malts, from white to tawny, including a “high-dried” variation of pale possibly similar to today’s mild ale malts.  “Amber,” often called “biscuit” today, was available in two shades, although Amsinck describes it as being made “nearly obsolete” by the introduction of black malt. Crystal malts were certainly being used from the mid-19th century onwards, but since their greatest utility is adding heft to weaker beers, they’re rarely needed here. 

In the old days, it was uncommon for brewers to use more than a single malt in a pale beer, except for sometimes “capping” last runnings with a darker malt to give it a little color and character. Since brewers often malted their own barley, it was simplest to malt for what they brewed rather than making different malts and blending them, as necessitated for porters. J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale uses nothing but Maris Otter pale malt and East Kent Golding hops—a clear lesson that lots of ingredients are unnecessary for extreme complexity. 

If you want some color, you might use a bit of amber/biscuit, but if you want to brew something similar to the darker Burton ale, mild ale malt might make sense. If you can’t find that, Vienna shares a lot of its round, malty characteristics. Amsinck’s Burton No. 1 used “New Burton Pale,” but blithely reports: “Boiled the liquor overnight,” which is where the color came from. Crystal should be used with a very light hand unless you’re aiming for something more typical of American craft examples such as Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot. Fair warning though: it ages poorly. 

Sugar was allowed in British beers after 1847. Both raw types and syrups derived from cane (and possibly palm) were enthusiastically employed in pale ales and IPAs, at least sometimes. Amsinck suggests a maximum of about 17 percent of gravity. Although I can’t document its use in barleywines, it wouldn’t be heretical in my opinion.

Parti-gyle brewing is complex, but entertaining. This results in a smaller batch from only the first third or half of the runnings, which will get you half or two-thirds of the extract, respectively. A recipe that yields a 1.075 gravity for the entire batch will get to 1.150 for the first third of the runoff or 1.1167 for the first half. Unless you’re shooting for a particularly light- or heavy-bodied beer, normal mashing temperatures of around 150 °F (66 °C) will do. 

The “October” forerunners of old ales were often hopped at very high rates. William Ellis, in his 1762 London and Country Brewer, gives his preferred recipe for “keeping beer,” which translates to 23 pounds of malt per 5-gallon batch, using only the first runnings (of four), with half a pound of unspecified hops added each half hour of the 90 minute boil. By modern calculations, this equates to over 200 IBU, a more-or-less impossible number. For the same batch size, Black’s “best” of 1835 included 11 ounces (312 g) of Goldings hops: half full boil and half in the last 10 minutes, yielding about 72 IBU. Historically, Goldings types were preferred as being of higher quality. Modern interpretations of the darker variants are lightly hopped, but Amsinck’s Burton used nearly 14 ounces of “East and Mid-Kent” per 5-gallon (19 L) batch. 

Recently-developed cultivars of Goldings type hops, like First Gold, are available, and there are now some delightful English alternatives if you can find them: Jester, with hints of apricot and berry and Harlequin, with fruity and tropical notes. Dry-hopping makes sense for these “mild” strong beers, but is optional in long-aged ones.

Beers stronger than 10%/volume need special attention to their yeast. First, choose a strain that is tolerant to the alcohol range you’re shooting for. Second, it’s a very good idea to re-pitch from a fermentation of a less-strong beer, since that generates a lot of yeast, ensuring a quick, clean fermentation. Lacking this, anything you can do to put more yeast into the fermenter will be helpful. If adding Brett afterwards, be aware that it’s a slow grower, taking several months to fully develop flavor and chew through complex carbs the S. cerevesiae left behind. 

Replicating oak-aged commercial beers of any era is an extreme challenge in very small batches. If you want the unique character of oak, I’d recommend adding toasted oak cubes or chips. The manufacturers often suggest usage rates to replicate larger barrels. I’ve gotten best results adding them right at the beginning of fermentation, which seems to speed up development of vanilla character. If you rack for storage, add fresh oak. Be patient. Those in Jolly Old England often waited decades for their masterpieces to mature. A year in the cellar should be just enough time to work up a worthy thirst. 


Martyn Cornell, 
So what IS the difference between barley wine and old ale?

W.T. Marchant
In Praise of Ale
George Redway, London, 1888

W.L. Tizard
The Theory and Practice of Brewing Illustrated
London, 1850

William Black 
A Practical Treatise on Brewing
Cornhill, London, Smith, Elder and Co., 1835

George Amsinck 
Practical Brewings: A Series of Fifty Brewings
Published by the author, London, 1868