The Ultimate Guide to Barleywine, a High-ABV Winter Sipper

Taste testing the best beer for winter drinking that you’ve never had.

Henry Phillips

In the mid-1970s, Fritz Maytag, then owner of the floundering Anchor Brewing Company and now considered by many to be the father of the craft brewing movement in America, traveled to England and noticed several women at the pub drinking an unfamiliar style of beer. He learned the drink was an old-style, unpopular ale called a barleywine, associated with little old ladies unwinding after long days of shopping, and so named because its alcohol content approached that of wine. Maytag thought it was perfect.

He returned to San Francisco brewery, which he had purchased in 1965 and was rebuilding in a way that seemed counterintuitive. At the time, pubs were full of men drinking lager, but, in the decade after he took over, Anchor bypassed lager and released their own versions of relatively unpopular styles of beer: a porter and a pale ale. He announced to his team of brewers that their next venture would be barleywine, an ale designed to sit on the shelf and age — and, more likely than not, to fall from favor and be forgotten.

This fact permeated the naming conventions. “He was telling us about the [British] bartender that made fun of it,” said the long time current brewmaster of Anchor, Mark Carpenter. “Saying they all had funny names. ‘Old Nicholas’, ‘Old Roger’. He named a few and then one guy says we should call ours Old Foghorn. It happened that quickly.” The name matched the antiquated ale and the ambient sounds of San Francisco, and no one thought twice.

Maytag was drawn to barleywine precisely because it was different. “He always liked the idea of a product no one was talking about, because the only way to go is up,” said Carpenter. Craft brewers opening today realize the same perils of relying on the popularity of IPAs; they get lost among the numbers. Old Foghorn, first bottled in 1976, became popular and, along with the Anchor Porter in 1972 and Liberty Ale in 1975, helped save Anchor Brewing Company.

The barleywines on this list clock in anywhere from 10 to 14 percent alcohol, depending on the original gravity, a measure of the fermentable sugar content of the wort. Breweries employ their own methods to achieve a heightened original gravity; Anchor uses only the “first runnings” to make Old Foghorn — the more sugary, unstrained combination of malted grain and water, which are 20 to 25 percent sugar compared to the reused “second runnings”, which are about 12 percent sugar. In the case of Old Foghorn, increased sugar from the first runnings gives the yeast more fuel for creating ethanol, and lends flavors reminiscent of dessert wine. (Carpenter recommends barleywine and tiramisu.) To balance the sweetness and allow for better preservation during aging, which lends a smoother, blended taste, Anchor’s first barleywine was heavily hopped. This gave rise to the American style of the beer, hoppier and balanced, over the sweeter old-lady drink of England. It’s got big flavor, big history and a lot of fruit, meaning it won’t be a beer for everyone. But below are 13 excellent examples of both American- and English-style barleywine that we tasted blind and rated according to appearance, smell, taste, and mouthfeel.

Sierra Nevada Barrel-Aged Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale


ABV: 11.9% | IBU: 90 | California
Malt: 2-Row Pale, Caramel | Hops: Cascade, Centennial, Chinook
Beer Advocate Rating: 92

Lives Up to Expectations: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, introduced in the winter of 1983, is considered to be the referential barlerywine, presenting the style at its theoretical best. Don’t let the wide availability of Sierra Nevada fool you; their wide distribution doesn’t come at a cost to quality and is one of the reasons they are respected in the industry. This barrel-aged version was introduced in 2013 in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of their popular barleywine.

Tasting Notes: Pours clear with a good head. Smells like candied nuts and chocolate-covered cherries. On the tongue is smoke, roasted oak and a chocolate finish. Extremely drinkable.

Overall: 4.25/5

Learn More: Here

Bell’s Brewery Third Coast Old Ale, Inc.


ABV: 10.2% | IBU: N/A | Michigan
Beer Advocate Rating: 92

Best Bitter Roast: Bell’s Brewery, established in 1983 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, ranks eighth among the largest craft brewers in America by production volume and their two IPAs, Hopslam and Two Hearted Ale, are among the most revered in the craft brewing community. This barleywine, sometimes called an old ale — a closely related style — is named for the coast of the Great Lakes.

Tasting Notes: Pours a deep, cloudy red and smells like caramel infused with bourbon or rye. On the tongue is a complex mix of dark fruit, bread and hoppiness that fades slowly. A great example of a bitter and roasted take on this style.

Overall: 3.8/5

Learn More: Here

AleSmith Old Numbskull


ABV: 11% | IBU: 96 | California
Beer Advocate Rating: 92

IPA Meets Dark Ale: AleSmith is small but rapidly growing. In 2003 they released the hugely successful Barrel Aged Speedway Stout, their first barrel-aged beer and the one for which they may be most well known. In 2008, they were awarded “Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year” at the Great American Beer Festival. In 2014, their lineup of highly rated beer won them recognition of #1 Best Brewery in the World based on consumer reviews at Then, just this year, they opened a larger brewery, with which they plan to ramp up production tenfold — so expect to see more of their offerings. And, unusual for most breweries on their list, this barleywine is available year-round.

Tasting Notes: Pours clean and red with a good head. Tons of hops and sweet bread on the nose. Unlike other versions of barleywine, this foregoes big fruit flavor for dry hops up front, which fades into roast.

Overall: 4.25/5

Learn More: Here

Weyerbacher Brewing Co. Insanity


ABV: 11.1% | IBU: 34 | Pennsylvania
Hops: Northern Brewer, Hallertau
Beer Advocate Rating: 92

Reliable from a Great Brewery: A small brewery in Easton, PA that is “continually pushing the envelope of taste experiences” and “obliterating style guidelines,” Weyerbacher may not be for everyone. The brewers use barrel aging to transform their beers: Old Heathen, their imperial stout, becomes Heresy; Merry Monks, a Belgian-style Tripel, becomes Prophecy; and QUAD, a Belgian-style Quadrupel ale, becomes Blasphemy. Last but not least, Blithering Idiot, their barleywine, becomes Insanity, one of the best examples of the style.

Tasting Notes: Pours hazy and dark brown. Smells immediately like bananas, bubble gum and nuts. It tastes just like it smells, but understated and with nuance thanks to the barrel aging. One of the more traditional barleywines on the list.

Overall: 3.5/5

Learn More: Here

Goose Island Beer Co. Bourbon County Brand Barleywine Ale


ABV: 12.1% | IBU: 60 | Illinois
Malt: Pale, Crystal, Caramel, Dark Chocolate | Hops: Pilgrim, Styrian
Beer Advocate Rating: 99

World Class: Bourbon County from Goose Island needs no introduction. Their 1993 release of Bourbon County Stout was among the first beers to be aged in bourbon barrels. Their barleywine is a bit more mellow then the rest of the lineup, and one of the highest-rated beers available anywhere.

Tasting Notes: Pours Tootsie Roll brown and smells of prunes, caramel and grapes. Tastes very sweet and bright, like a grape lollipop transitioning into a Tootsie Roll center. Toffee and tart pear help balance. A great dessert barleywine.

Overall: 4.25/5

Learn More: Here

Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Helldorado


ABV: 13.2% | IBU: 25 | California
Beer Advocate Rating: 94

Perfect Dessert Beer Firestone Walker, founded in 1996 by Adam Firestone, great-great-grandson of the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, is a very unique brewery. They use the old-fashioned Burton Union system, allowing them to ferment their beer in oak barrels, which they also use extensively for aging. Their limited-release Proprietor’s Vintage Series is hard to get your hands on, and aged for extended periods in oak, but is well worth it — and the color of the super blonde barleywine is rare for big ales such as these, and another example of how Firestone is doing it differently.

Tasting Notes: Pours a very light orange with a good head. Smells like candied lemon drops, ginger and banana. Tastes like vanilla, cotton candy, orange sorbet and nuts. This is a sweet, sweet barleywine, making it a great substitution for any dessert wine, but also making it hard to drink more than one, which, at 13.2% ABV, isn’t such a bad thing. One of our hands down favorites on this list.

Overall: 4.5/5

Learn More: Here

Rogue Ales XS Old Crustacean (2013)


ABV: 10.8% | IBU: 105 | Oregon
Malt: 2-Row, Munich, C40 and Rogue Farms Dare and Risk Malts | Hops: Newport and Freedom
Beer Advocate Rating: 90

Heavy Bottle, Huge Taste: Rogue Ales began in 1988 as a small operation housed beneath a 60-seat pub quietly producing two quality beers: American Amber and Oregon Golden. The brewery has since rapidly expanded, with a new location in Newport, and Rogue Farms in Independence, Oregon, where they grow the Dare and Risk Malts and Newport and Freedom hops used in this award-winning barleywine, nicknamed “Old Crusty.”

Tasting Notes: Deep orange and cloudy, with gingerbread cookies and a little apricot on the nose. The taste was a tag team of bitterness and roasted malt, with a little bit of a soapy aftertaste. It’s an aggressive beer that won’t be for everyone, but will do well for those who enjoy smoked porters or dark, roasty stouts.

Overall: 2.5/5

Learn More: Here

Noteworthy Exclusions

Because every list is finite, and many barleywines are seasonal offerings, we unfortunately had to leave off a few great representations of this style. If you can find the following, you won’t be disappointed.

Great Divide Brewing Company Old Ruffian Barley Wine, 10.2% ABV, BA: 94
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3 Floyds Behemoth Blonde Barleywine, 10.5% ABV, BA: 93
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Cambridge Brewing Company Blunderbuss Barleywine, 13% ABV, BA: 93
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Lawson’s Finest Liquids Double Or Nothing Maple Barleywine, 10% ABV, BA: 88
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Midnight Sun Brewing Co. Arctic Devil Barley Wine, 13.2% ABV, BA: 96
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Alpine Beer Company Great, 14% ABV, BA: 97
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Lagunitas Brewing Company Olde GnarlyWine, 10.6% ABV, BA: 91
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Stone Brewing Co. Old Guardian Barleywine


ABV: 11.2% | IBU: 80 | California
Hops: Cascade, Chinook, Delta, Nugget
Beer Advocate Rating: 90

A Bold Style for a Bold Brewery: Stone Brewing opened in 1996. Two years later they bottled their barleywine, which has been a yearly release since. And on December 7, 2015, the Escondido, California brewery served the first round of drinks from their new Berlin brewhouse, which is the first independently built, owned and operated American craft brewery in Europe. Stone is known for big, obnoxiously strong beers, so barleywine fits right in their wheelhouse.

Tasting Notes: Pours clean and reddish. Smells immediately like banana bread and tastes like tart cherry and roasted malt, balanced by great hop flavor.

Overall: 3.4/5

Learn More: Here

Anchor Brewing Company Old Foghorn


ABV: 8.2% | IBU: N/A | California
Malt: Blend of 2-Row Pale and Caramel | Hops: Cascade
Beer Advocate Rating: 88

The Original for a Reason: This is the forefather of everything on this list, the first barleywine introduced in America when it was brewed in 1975. Old Foghorn, named for the sounds of San Francisco and to reflect naming convention abroad, is made only from first wort for high sugar content, meaning three mashes are required to produce just one barleywine brew.

Tasting Notes: Pours clean and ruby red. On the nose it’s tame and a little sweet from plums. Extremely balanced on the tongue with dark fruit and hops, but without having a standout flavor to dominate. Brewed first and brewed right.

Overall: 4.4/5

Learn More: Here

Upland Brewing Company Barrel Chested Barleywine


ABV: 9.5% | IBU: 50 | Indiana
Beer Advocate Rating: 88

The Pride of Indiana: Founded in 1997, Upland is currently the second-largest brewery in Indiana. They call their barleywine a “gentle giant,” smoothed from a long maturation time in oak barrels previously used by the Willett Distilling Company.

Tasting Notes: Pours a rosy brown and smells of coffee, almond and rye bread. On the tongue is burnt caramel, mellowed well by dark fruit. Very impressive example of a highly drinkable barleywine.

Overall: 3.6/5

Learn More: Here

Buxton & Evil Twin Anglo Mania


ABV: 10.3% | IBU: N/A | England
Beer Advocate Rating: 89

A Hoppy Take from England: Evil Twin Brewing in Brooklyn teamed up with the Buxton’s facility in Derbyshire to brew this hulking barleywine, which is brewed using a single hop variety and single malt variety. While most barleywines on this list are the result of Fritz Maytag importing the style to America in the 1970s, this is a great example of British breweries bringing the style back with great results.

Tasting Notes: Pours like a murky apple cider. On the nose is citrus, like lemon zest. On the tongue are tons of hops, reminiscent of a flavored IPA, with raisins coming in to sweeten the bitterness. A surprise standout.

Overall: 4/5

Learn More: Here

Jackie O’s Brick Kiln Barleywine


ABV: 10.5% | IBU: N/A | Ohio
Beer Advocate Rating: 88

A Microbrewery Punches Above Its Weight: Jackie O’s is a pub and brewery based in Athens, Ohio, and they’ve been brewing beer since 2005. We’ve included them because in 2013 they expanded into a new facility, producing over two dozen styles — so expect to be seeing more of them soon. Their distribution is small, but if you are ever in Ohio, they are well worth the trip.

Tasting Notes: Pours red-brown with cherry and toasted marshmallow on the nose. On the tongue it’s dark and roasty, with raisins and a bitter hop finish.

Overall: 3.5/5

Learn More: Here

Central Waters Barleywine


ABV: ~11.5% | IBU: N/A | Wisconsin
Beer Advocate Rating: 95

The Biggest Surprise: Central Waters has had a tumultuous history, but even from the beginning the brewery produced award-winning beer. The brewery changed hands multiple times since its founding and had to shut down after the main brew kettle cracked before the brewery’s fifth anniversary. Despite this, the small brewery has produced some of the best beers around, with this barleywine taking home a Gold Medal at the 2008 Great American Beer Festival, the most iconic beer festival in America.

Tasting Notes: Pours cloudy brown and smells like Samoa cookies. This continues on the tongue, where coconut, oak and raisins roam. Amazing barleywine and one of our favorites.

Overall: 4.25/5

Learn More: Here

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