So I became giddy as a little kid on Christmas morning anytime I had the opportunity to travel out of state and visit a decent beer store. I would sometimes buy $100, $200, or more of beers I couldn’t get back home. Thinking back, I now find most of those beers I bought as ordinary as I found Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at the time (I have a renewed appreciation for quality pale ales these days). But seven years ago, Chimay Blue, Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale, Rogue Old Crustacean and Delerium Tremens were exotic and rare in my universe.
And I’m certain that the elusiveness of “high gravity” beer for me was a major contributor to my obsession with barley wines back then. The style seemed like the poster child for everything good about the beers that were outlawed by a ridiculous Alabama prohibition on beers over 6 percent: they were sometimes double the state’s legal limit, they were expensive, complex, cellared well for many years, and it seemed like all the great American breweries had one. So I tried every one I could get my hands on.
Memories of those days came flooding back when I entered into an email conversation with local beer blogger (and Urban Standard manager) Trevor Newberry on the topic of a barley wine series he’s been working on for his Happy Imbibe site. I recovered from my barley wine obsession several years ago and haven’t given them much thought in a while, but the conversation with Trevor got my gears turning, and something interesting hit me.
While almost every American brewery that got its start in the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s has a barley wine in its portfolio (or English-style old ale, which I consider to be the same thing), hardly any of the breweries that started in the 21st century brew one. Or, to really dig in-to the heart of the matter here, many 21st century breweries do brew a barley wine, but they prefer to call it an “imperial red ale” instead.
Think about it: Anchor, Rogue, Sierra Nevada, North Coast, Bell’s. These are giants of craft brewing who opened their doors in the 70s and 80s. Old Foghorn, Bigfoot, Old Stock, Third Coast Old Ale—they all have barley wines. Advance to the 90s and you think of Dogfish Head, Stone, Avery, Great Divide, Victory. Olde School Barleywine, Old Guardian, Hog Heaven, Old Ruffian, Old Horizontal. Onto the ‘00s: Oskar Blues, Surly, Russian River, Yazoo, Terrapin, Good People... not a barley wine to be found.
But what you will find in some of these brewers’ lineups is something branded as an “imperial red (or amber) ale.” Terrapin has Big Hoppy Monster. Oskar Blues has G’Knight. Alabama’s own Yellowhammer now has Tobacco Road It’s time for some straight talk. There is no such thing as an imperial red ale. And there’s a reason that the BJCP, BeerAdvocate, and RateBeer all do not acknowledge such a style. There is nothing you can call an imperial red ale that doesn’t already fit into another category.
There is but a gossamer thread separating the double IPA and American barley wine categories. For some commercial examples of those styles, you’d be hard pressed to guess which category they’re in based on a blind taste test. Both are high in alcohol, have tons of hops and are lighter in color than brown ales. American barley wines should have a more robust caramel malt backbone, but lots of double IPAs flirt with that degree of maltiness. The American barley wine style already is an American amber/red ale with more alcohol—an imperial red ale, if you will.
My theory is that barley wine sales have fallen as a percentage of craft brewer sales over the past 15 years, and so 21st century craft brewers don’t want to weigh down their beers with the baggage of that style name. It is confusing, after all. Folks who don’t know much about craft beer assume that barley wine is some weird type of regular (grape) wine. Hard to blame them. “Imperial red ale” sounds more beery to casual beer drinkers, and more new and exciting to beer geeks. So it seems American craft brewers are increasingly abandoning the old style name in favor of a new one that doesn’t “officially” exist, but which is more descriptive and appealing to the consumer.
This all hints at a bigger problem with the nature of many beer style names, in which there is almost no difference between most stouts and porters, most pale ales aren’t pale and cream ales aren’t creamy. Then you have new bastard styles emerging like “black India pale ale.” Huh? It’d be nice if the beer world was a bit simpler for newbies, but there’s not much chance of any of this changing.
For now, I’d suggest a careful study of all the barley wines sold in the Birmingham area, most of which are listed a few paragraphs up. As you taste, note how they are really imperial red ales.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com