What Is Barley Wine?

A Guide to Buying, Drinking, and Pairing Barley Wine

Barley wine and butter tea served in a local bar, Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China

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In This Article

Barley Wine (also known as barleywine) is not a wine, but rather a beer dating back to 18th century England. The strong ale is full-bodied with a rich copper to dark red-brown color and medium hoppiness. Much of the beer's nutty, toasty, caramel flavors come from a generous amount of malt, while hops and yeast add background flavor and body. American barley wines tend to be hoppier, while British bottles are more balanced and mellow. The high alcohol in barley wine can give it a boozy characteristic, and the beer is especially good for aging. The beer's complex flavor profile and propensity for cellaring draw similarities to wine, hence the name.

Fast Facts

  • ABV: 8–13%
  • Bitterness: 50–100 IBU
  • Color: 15–30 SRM

Types of Barley Wine

You may occasionally see barley wine labeled under a few different names, many of them harkening back to the beer's origins. Note that some craft brewers give their beers fun names, so you'll have to read the fine print to decipher exactly what style of beer it is:

  • Barleywine
  • Winter warmer
  • Old Ale
  • Stock Ale


Barley wine is not a particularly strict category of beer and can vary greatly depending on the brewer. There are two major styles available today:

British-Style Barley Wine

England has been making barley wine for centuries, even though the beer didn't get its current name until Bass Brewery coined it in 1854. Previously known as winter warmer or stock ale, barley wine was produced at the beginning of mass beer production and stored in barrels. This initial brew was high in alcohol and flavor, making them great for aging. The potent beer could also be blended with younger, fresher beers for more complex results.

When tasting British barley wine, you'll find a beer rich and flavorful, with toffee, nutty, and toasty, with hints of biscuit and balanced fruitiness. While boozier than most beer, they lean much heavier on malt flavors than hops. This style tends to age exceptionally well, rounding out any bitterness.

American-Style Barley Wine

Barley wine, while distinctively a British style of beer, can be made in a hoppier American style. This version of the strong ale can be slightly lighter in color with more hops to counter-balance the rich malt. American barley wine is still high in alcohol but is often better when consumed fresh rather than aged. Many American craft breweries like to get creative when it comes to barrel-aging—barley wines can be aged in anything from bourbon to port barrels, lending the beer different characteristics.

Even though barley wine can be produced in an "American style" and "British style," breweries around the world produce both. For example, you can often find American breweries offering British-style barley wine.

How to Serve Barley Wine

Because barley wine is a strong, flavorful ale, it is best served in a snifter. The snifter glass is often associated with dark liquors like bourbon, but the shape and size are ideal for high-strength beers. Barley wine should be served chilled, but at a warmer temperature than light beers (50–55 F) to accentuate the warming flavors of the beer. It's perfect for sipping on a cold evening.

Food Pairings

Barley wine's rich and complex flavor makes it a perfect digestif to pair with after-dinner courses. Try serving the ale with strong cheeses like stilton as well as other cheese plate offerings like toasted nuts and dried fruit. Rich desserts also pair nicely with the sipper, such as spiced truffles or chocolate bundt cake.

Best Brands

Barley wine ale is made by a variety of American and British brewers as well as beer-makers from across the world. If you don't see them at your local shop, try contacting a local brewery or ordering online. Note that barley wines are most widely available in the cold weather months—not because of seasonal production, but because of demand. The hearty brew is most popular in the winter.

These breweries make their own barley wine that's widely available:

  • Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
  • North Coast Brewing Company
  • Goose Island Brewery
  • Weyerbacher Brewing Company
  • Fremont Brewing
  • Revolution Brewing
  • Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
  • Dick's Brewing Company
  • Lagunitas Brewing Company
  • Rogue Ales