The modern difference between an English Barleywine and English Old Ale are slim. Indeed, the primary difference is that the Old Ale tops out around 9% ABV, whereas the Barleywine starts at 8% ABV, and where the Old Ale is singularly malty, to even out the booziness, the barleywine will have some hop balance. Indeed, the BJCP notes, vis-à-vis Old Ales: "Fits in the style space between normal gravity beers (strong bitters, brown porters) and barleywines. Can include winter warmers, strong dark milds, strong (and perhaps darker) bitters, blended strong beers (stock ale blended with a mild or bitter), and lower gravity versions of English barleywines." The Brewer's Assocation, in its recently released 2009 styleguide (pdf), notes about Old Ales: "A distinctive quality of these ales is that they undergo an aging process (often for years) on their yeast either in bulk storage or through conditioning in the bottle, which contributes to a rich and often sweet oxidation character. Complex estery characters may also emerge."
The history of barleywines really isn't particularly interesting, believe it or not. Even the history of Old Ales isn't terribly interesting. There's no cool "we were making it for the Queen of Russia" kind of stories. No "food for fasting monks". No trips to India. It's an interesting history, only because the style, Old Ale, goes back so long, that it's difficult to separate the Old Ale/Common/Small brewing cycle from the development of the brewing process. And, at the end of the day, unless you're an uberbeergeek, which admittedly many of us are, the history of sparging just isn't that compelling of a story.
Still want to hear about sparging? Sheesh. You're persistent. Alright. Do you know how modern day sparging works?
A quick lesson in beer making if you weren't paying attention on the last tour you went on: beer is made by steeping grains in hot water and draining the hot water into a kettle, boiling it, adding some hops, cooling it, adding some yeast and letting it sit for a while (yes, that's all there is to it; do you know how to make loose-leaf tea? If so, just make loose-leaf tea in a really big teapot using malted barley instead of tea and your tea cup is a large metal tank). The water that's added to the grains is called "liquor" (yes, confusing, get over it) and liquid that comes off the grains is called wort (pronounced "wert").
OK. You with me? Good, cause it gets kind of weird here.
You need to get the wort off the grains and into a kettle; that's fairly easy to accomplish, you drain it through a hole. But there's a bit of an efficiency problem here. If you drain all of the water off of the grains at once you are left with a whole lot grain that still has a lot of fermentable sugar. In order to capture some of that residual sugar, the grains are rinsed with warm water (around 170 degrees or so) and that water drains out and is added to the wort as well. [side note: if this is a continuous process, we add as much water as we take wort as we're taking it, it's called "continuous sparge" – this was invented by Germans]
Well, we can have a pretty efficient brewery if we take as much as sugars from the grains as we can get to put into our beer. Efficiency being defined, roughly, as the amount of fermentable sugar we achieve using the least amount water to achieve our target water levels. Confusing, no? Look at it this way: let's say you add 5 gallons of water to 7 pounds of grain. How much wort are you going to get out? And how much sugar will be left over that you didn't capture? I don't know either, but it will be much less than 5 gallons and it won't be all of the sugars. So, how much water do we need to add to 7 pounds of grain to get 5 gallons of wort and as much of the sugars as we can get? I don't know that either off the top of my head, but it's more than 5 gallons and you'll have to add some to grains to rinse them. So, what sparging does is this: the brewer calculates what's the minimum amount of water that she can use to get the grains to release all of their sugars, then how much more water does she need to add to get it off of the grain kernel itself and have the final water level equal to what she needs.
Yes. It's a lot of math. Proof that those who worry that UW's brewing class is encouraging alcoholism has no idea how beer is actually made. It's a lot of math. And a lot of chemistry. And a lot of biology. But mostly a lot of math.
You can do what the British did. Add a lot of water to a lot of grains, pull it all off at once, residual sugars be damned (for now). Use this wort to make a strong beer like an old ale, or a barleywine. Then, add water to the grains again and let it steep to pull out the residual sugars and make a beer out of that. This is called a "common" beer. Then, if the first beer you made was really strong, like, I don't know, an Old Ale or Barleywine maybe, you can actually get a third beer out of the grains. This is the "small" beer. This style of brewing is called "parti-gyle" brewing and there aren't many breweries doing this anymore because it's not terribly efficient.
So, the beers made from the first runnings were of the highest quality and highest fermentability. These were known for being big, strong, beers that were really boozy. Especially when they were aged in oak barrels and they took on some of the bacterias and woody qualities made them taste a lot like wines. In 1903 Bass called theirs a "barleywine" and the name just kind of stuck.
See? Unless you care about sparging, the history of barleywines and old ales is kind of lame.
[ed note: parti-gyle brewing was also done by the Belgians and why we have the Tripel, Dubbel, and Blonde (strong, common, small). Yes, that is true. Bust that out next time you're at Brasserie V]
George Gale 2007 Prize Old Ale
Appearance: A surprising 2-finger white head on a gorgeous crystal-clear, finely carbonated, body; there is wine-like legs on the side of my glass just from the head falling; looking in the bottle, not much yeast on the bottom for a bottle-conditioned beer – but it's still young, so maybe it just hasn't settled out yet?
Aroma: I could smell the hops and alcohol immediately upon pouring it; closer inspection reveals a fruitier, almost Belgian-y, slightly sour/fruity aroma – dark fruits like cherry with caramel and bread-like maltiness beneath the bright aromas
Flavor: not at all what I was expecting; amazingly soft, the flavor has a big fruity sourness with a long booziness on the finish; the malts are biscuity and caramel, but the flavor is strangely Belgian
Body: thick, soft and velvety; reminds of a Belgian Dubbel
Drinkability: as a young beer this thing is surprisingly feisty and fun; for a 9% big beer it is amazingly sessionable
Summary: not at all what I was expecting; this is a fun beer that I'll have to grab more of to age; it was only $3.99 at Woodman's West for this 1 pt 9oz bottle – a great deal! It reminded me a lot of a Belgian Dubbel without the funky spicing; the finish was "cleaner" than I might have suggested above because of a distinct dryness that came through – though I think it's so strong that it overcame the dryness (if that makes sense??)
PS. I'm wondering if this sourness isn't a sign of infection; it's not so terrible that it makes the beer bad; in fact, like noted above it is kind of fun and rather enjoyed it, but it seems so incongruous, so off-style, even in a young beer, that I wonder if this bottle isn't somehow infected? Clearly it was capped OK, the carbonation and head were fine, so the bottle was sealed properly, but this sourness is, honestly, baffling. Though, this review by the Alstrom Bros does indicate that Jason had some tartness as well in a 1996 bottle; although he had some huskiness that I didn't get in this 2007 version. Honestly, if this wasn't an Old Ale I wouldn't have thought twice about it, but the tartness/fruitiness was really quite overpowering.
PPS. In retrospect using this beer to illustrate the barleywine pre-cursor of Old Ale probably wasn't the best idea; this beer was so far from the norm, that I'd have a hard time recommending it as a good example of the style. Although I really enjoyed it, I'd have to say that if you are looking for an Old Ale that is a little more "barleywine-like" (despite Mrs. MBR saying that she though this beer tasted like a young red wine) you'd probably be better served with Fuller's Vintage or 1845, though the Harvieston Old Engine Oil is good, too.
PPPS. I wrote this review before I wrote the article. In light of the history of Old Ales and barleywines, the lactic and sour characters that were once common in these beers seem pretty prevalent here. Maybe this one is just super-authentic. This beer has me completely befuddled; I'm going to have to go buy more of this.
PPPPS. Has anyone out there had this beer? If so, please comment and let me know what you thought/remembered of it.