In a field awash with malty musculatures, swelling ABVs, and a deluge of pungent hops, American-style barleywines are typically the burliest clod on the block. A close relative to old ales and winter warmers, these liquored-up after-dinner sippers have alcohol levels that regularly hover in the double digits, making them perfect for austere winter days. After reaching its peak of popularity in 18th- and 19th-century Britain, presumably alongside a snifter of brandy and a crackling fireplace, barleywines fell out of favor.
Now, in the age of barrel-aging, brettanomyces, and anything sinewy or eccentric, brew masters are amping up production on these once forgotten ales. I invited several friends and colleagues to help blind sample 15 modern American examples. We wanted to compare popular local offerings with award-winning, nationally recognized brands like Anchor’s influential forebear, Old Foghorn. Frederic Yarm , Russell House Tavern bartender and author of “Drink & Tell: A Boston Cocktail Book,” took part, as did my Boston.com colleague Jon Palmer, and my beer savvy friend, Jeff Soyk.
Almost all of the brews had some laudable detail or nuance, while others were comfortably pardoned to the dump bucket. Here are the results of our blind barleywine tasting from worst to first.