What began more than three decades ago as a small-batch specialty beer made by a local beer hero has grown thunderously into perhaps the most cult-acclaimed craft beer style in America: the barleywine.
Fritz Maytag is the man to thank. He had just bought a beer factory in Potrero Hill called Anchor Brewing Company, but rather than give Americans more of the same wan lager they'd been drinking since the 1950s, Maytag took a breath, looked east, and traveled to England with two friends for an educational beer tour. It was 1975, an era when beer geeks were as yet unknown ― Maytag and his pals may have been the first on record, especially after their pilgrimage to the British countryside to sift through the figurative shadows and dust clods of England's lost beer styles. They drank in nameless pubs in far-off villages. Maytag knew what he was looking for: classic British beers, malt- and hop-heavy, brimming with flavor. To their disappointment, England's beer culture had gone the same way as America's ― into the mass-market realm of watery lagers fermented largely from cane and corn sugars.
Then, just days before Maytag had to return to America to start brewing, he came across the barleywine, a strong, malty ale, mild on the hops, and thick with caramel, butterscotch, and brandy flavors. It captured Maytag's imagination: He walked out of the pub with the recipe. Back home, he brewed his own rendition and named it Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale, the first of its kind in America. It was destined to become a classic.
So go ahead, smirk; be smug. Because right here in San Francisco, the barleywine was reborn. Fitting, then, that this city is also the home of one of the biggest single-style beer festivals in the world, the Toronado Pub Barleywine Festival. The 18th annual event is scheduled for Feb. 19-21 at Toronado, 547 Haight (at Fillmore).
To warm up for this event, I joined three friends for a blind tasting of five barleywines. This is a beer that always makes for a brow-raising session, so flavorful and complex is the style. For all their brawn and high-alcohol heft, the barleywines in this set exhibited remarkable elegance, complexity, and subtlety. Still, some were better than others. What follows is a synopsis of each beer, including its score on a 1-10 scale. We tasted blindly and in silence on the first round, then discussed, shared notes, and ranked our favorites.
1. North Coast Brewing Company Old Stock Ale (Fort Bragg, Calif.): 9 points. Honey- and rose-colored and with minimal head, this was the panel's uncontested favorite. Nothing about the beer screamed "barleywine," but the marked aromas of applejack, cherry, oak, bourbon, and bread, along with hot flavors of boozy fruit, caramel, and very faint smoke, earned it the warmest reception. (11.7% ABV, $3.99/12-oz bottle)