Brewing Barleywine: Tips from the Pros

Barleywines are big beers boasting alcohol contents of 9–15 % by volume. That being said, there are certain techniques that brewers utilize in order to get that alcohol percentage up to the appropriate level. This high volume of alcohol requires more extensive aging to make the beer taste smooth, mellow and balanced. Some brewers even take this opportunity to age on oak, giving their barleywine unique character.

Brewer: Darron Welch, Pelican Pub & Brewery in Pacific City, OR

The hops we use are primarily Hersbrucker hops from Germany. Hersbruckers have a wonderful spicy and noble aroma that works nicely with the biscuity, toasted malt character. We use our own house ale yeast to ferment Stormwatcher’s Winterfest, at 66 ºF (19 ºC).

To hit our extract targets, we mash twice and run-off short in order to fill up one of our small fermenters. We utilize very long boil times to both concentrate our extract and to develop flavor and color. Stormwatcher’s Winterfest is first wort hopped, which is a little bit unusual, but it is a technique that we use quite a bit here at the Pelican Pub & Brewery, so it seems normal to us.

To conduct a proper fermentation for this big beer, we shoot for a pitching rate about 50% greater than normal. In our brewery, we use the industry standard of 1 million cells per milliliter per degree Plato. So for example, with our Kiwanda Cream Ale, a 12.2 ºPlato wort (1.050 specific gravity), the target pitching rate is 12.2 million cells per milliliter of wort.

In the case of the Stormwatcher’s Winterfest, the starting extract is very high, 31 ºPlato (1.126 specific gravity), so the target pitch rate would normally be 31 million cells per milliliter, but in the case of very high gravity brews you want more than this rule of thumb, so the target is 50% higher, at 46 to 47 million cells per mL.

You are creating a stressful environment for your yeast when brewing a barleywine, so in addition to needing a heavy pitch rate, you want to give the yeast lots of oxygen. We dose purified oxygen inline during wort transfer at 45 cubic feet per hour (CFH) and 30 PSI for the entire wort transfer. It is really next to impossible to over oxygenate very high gravity worts such as a barleywine.

On a homebrew level, I’d consult with the yeast supplier to understand how many millions of cells there are in the yeast sample you are buying, and then either buy extra packages of yeast, or work out a timeline for progressively inoculating larger volumes of wort and building up your population of yeast cells. Invest in a sintered stainless stone and use it to really blast air or oxygen into your cooled and pitched wort.

We also try to maximize the apparent attenuation of Stormwatcher’s Winter-fest, not an easy task with a beer this big. The 2005 version had an apparent degree of fermentation (ADF) of about 72%, while the 2004 went a little further, with an ADF of 78%. In 2004 we used some locally sourced wildflower honey, which improved fermentability. In 2005 it wasn’t available due to a wet spring previous.

As for bitterness and color, Storm-watcher’s Winterfest is about 35–40 IBUs and about 75 SRM. The beer clocks in at a hefty 12.5% ABV.

Stormwatcher’s Winterfest is a very rich and balanced beer when it is fresh, but gains tremendous complexity and richness of aroma as it ages. The Stormwatcher’s Winterfest that won a medal at this year’s GABF was nearly a year old, and had been in the bottle for about eight months.

We target a CO2 level similar to that of our other beers, around 2.5 to 2.6 volumes. Stormwatcher’s Winterfest has a 7-day fermentation and a 6–7 day maturation at slightly elevated temperatures (68–69 ºF). It is clarified with finings, cold conditioned for about two weeks and then gently filtered to brighten it up. The beer is held at about 12 PSI headspace pressure during cold conditioning, so it is mostly carbonated when filtered. We have carbonating stones in the bright beer and serving tanks to touch up the carbonation if need be.

For homebrewers wanting to brew barleywines, I would actually recommend starting with smaller beers that offer similar challenges and flavor profiles. You can practice mashing and running off twice to produce a high gravity wort, and you can improve your fermentation management skills incrementally. If you start with a 20 ºPlato (1.083 SG) wort  and ferment it successfully, you will have learned some good lessons along the way, which you can apply to later, stronger brews. Eventually, you can increase the wort strength into the barleywine range.

Barleywine is not a beer style for impatient brewers. But the satisfaction and rewards of brewing such a beer more than makes up for its challenges. Brewing barleywine pushes the limits of normal brewing techniques and a brewer’s skill. You will be a better brewer after making a good barleywine.

Issue: December 2006