10/06/2011 12:36 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2012

Meet Barley Wine, the Beer That's Never Met a Grape

Don't let barley wine's name throw you for a loop: The beer style has little in common with fermented grapes -- except for an alcohol content that can hit double digits. That explains why the thick, sometimes fruity, always strong belly-warming ale has become a signature sip for cold, chilly nights. But to suss out the style's genesis, we need to turn to 18th and 19th century Britain.

Back then, many farmhouse breweries around the British Isles and Europe used a process called parti-gyle brewing to produce multiple beers from a single grain mash. (Today, one grain mash makes one beer batch.) The first running, or wort, contained the most fermentable sugars -- the fuel that yeasts require to create alcohol. The second running created "common" beer and, if there were enough residual sugars left for a third batch, "small" beer. (Fun fact: Parti-gyle brewing was also common in Belgium, creating the styles now known as tripel, dubbel and blond.)

The less-potent beers were quickly consumed, but the stronger first runnings were often stored to be sipped later, as the beers' higher ABVs kept them from spoiling. What happened next is debatable: Perhaps to better preserve their ales, or maybe to one-up fellow beer makers, British brewers kept boosting their strong beers' alcohol content. Accomplishing that required elbow grease. Since yeasts don't thrive at elevated alcohol levels, brewers would jostle them into action by occasionally rolling barrels of beer around the brewery or pump oxygen through the brew to revive the essentially drunken yeast. The longer fermentation process made barley wines mellower and more multifaceted, adding intricate layers of flavor.

In the 1800s, these potent aged brews (which were sometimes blended with weaker beers to provide complexity) went by several aliases -- strong ales, stock ales, winter warmers, old ales -- or, quite commonly, they were simply marked by three X's or K's branded into a wooden barrel. Not all were what you'd consider a barley wine, but they would knock your socks off. In fact, the term "barley wine" wasn't used commercially until 1903, when what is now Bass Brewers Limited released its Bass No. 1 Barley Wine.

An American Resurgence

Over time, barley wines in Britain were marketed more for their booziness than flavor. The style fell out of favor. In America, few beer drinkers had ever heard of barley wine until 1975, when San Francisco's Anchor Brewing released Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale, which was (and still is) substantially hopped with flowery Cascade hops. And there began the divide. While England offered more balanced, less liquored-up barley wines, American brewers used a heavy hand with the hops and ratcheted up the alcohol content.

For example, Rogue Ales's XS Old Crustacean boasts more than 100 IBUs and an 11.5 percent ABV; Great Divide Brewing's Old Ruffian annually offers more than 85 IBUs and 10 percent ABV. And while the namesake barley wine of Farmville, North Carolina's Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery registers 11 percent ABV, "it's not bitter enough to really be an American barley wine," says Paul Philippon, the brewery's philosopher turned founder, who brews some of America's finest dark brews. At the same time, "it's too bitter to be an English barley wine, and it uses American hops." As for a definition, he says, "I tell people that it's a Farmville-style barley wine -- and we're the only brewer in Farmville." (The burgeoning wheat wine variant incorporates a large percentage of wheat, which creates a soft, rich mouth-feel.)

That's the thing about modern-day barley wines: While it'd be nice to set them in a nice, tight box, they're as mutable as the big ol' strong beers of yore. Some are warming and a smidgen spicy, like Real Ale Brewing Company's rye-infused Sisyphus Barleywine Style Ale. By contrast, the Flying Mouflan, from Pennsylvania's Tröegs Brewing Company, is ruby-brown and IBU'd up the wazoo with Warrior, Chinook and Simcoe hops. Flying Mouflan is released in the spring, which makes sense: The brewers recommend cellaring the barley wine for four months, letting the hops and alcohol mellow, thus making it ready to serve as a toasty respite in the cold heart of winter.

You can age most barley wines, but these dark, powerful beers are also excellent fresh, which is why Duck-Rabbit's Philippon releases his in January. "We make it with the intention that it should be enjoyed right away," Philippon says. "I always feel like beer is for drinking, not saving."

This article is excerpted from Brewed Awakening: Behind the Beers and Brewers Leading the World's Craft Brewing Revolution, which will be released by Sterling Epicure November 1.