Tag Archives: barley wine

The Session #12: Barley Wine

session-logo-med.jpgHow sad is this: I’m so late getting my post up for this month’s Session that not only did I miss the wrap-up post, but I also missed the post-wrap-up post. I guess this means that I don’t have to go into any great detail about the barley wine style in general, since several others have already a good job of it.

Instead, I’ll get right to the specific beer I choose, which was Legacy Ale from Buckerfield’s Brewery, the brewpub at Swans Hotel in Victoria, BC. I wish I could say that I tried it at the pub in person, but sadly, I’ve yet to visit what I’ve heard it one of the most beautiful and beer-friendly cities in Canada. Instead, I enjoyed a bottle that was kindly passed on to me by Troy of the Great Canadian Pubs blog – who incidentally hopes to finally join in on the Session fun next month.

One thing that I like about barley wines is that a lot of them have a back story, whether it be a name taken from an historical figure, or a connection to some event or other that they were originally brewed for. Legacy Ale continues that tradition, as it was brewed in 2006 as a tribute to Michael Williams, a wealthy philanthropist who oversaw the redevelopment of a derelict area of Victoria – an area that includes the Swans/Buckerfield’s building – and who left an estate after his passing in 2000 that continues to support area, as well as the arts and marine science studies at the University of Victoria.

legacy_ale.jpgFrom the sounds of it, Williams left a pretty big legacy, so it’s fitting that he be remembered by a pretty big beer. It pours a very attractive ruby-orange with a small head that disappears quickly. The robust aroma has notes of sweet caramel malt, rum-soaked raisins, orange zest, and a warm and mellow hint of hops. The body is full and rich, and the flavour follows pretty closely on the aroma, starting quite smooth and sweet with dried fruit and caramel notes, and moving into a long, warm finish that reminds you this is an 11% ale. Over a year on from the December, 2006 bottling date, it’s in fine shape, although I’m sure if I had another couple of bottles to stash away, they’d fare well for at least a few more years, if not longer.

Thanks to Troy for this much appreciated treat, and to Jon at The Brew Site for hosting The Session this month. Chris over at Beer Activist is hosting next month’s instalment, and if you read his blog with any regularity, you won’t be surprised to know that the theme will be organic beers. That’s a segment of the beer market that is quite under-represented in Ontario, so I’ll have to keep an eye out during my trip to Montreal next weekend to see if I can find a suitable brew or two.

OCB Winter Beers – A Review Round-Up


Back in mid-December, I received a media pack from the Ontario Craft Brewers containing eight holiday/seasonal/dark beers. For a number of reasons, I was pretty slow to drink them all, with the final bottle finally being cracked a couple of nights ago (although I wish I had opened it sooner, for reasons noted below…), so the review round-up I promised would “follow soon” at the time has taken a bit longer than expected. Better late than never, right?

So, in the order of appearance in the photo above…

Wellington County Dark Ale
Chestnut-brown with a small off-white head. Toasty malts on the nose, with some toffee and chocolate. Medium bodied, and a well rounded malt flavour with notes of caramel/brown sugar, chocolate, and an odd hint of red wine. (Just see if I was imagining it, I checked my notes from a few years ago, and I noticed it then as well.) Mild hops in the finish are a bit earthy. A pleasant beer that straddles the line between a traditional UK pale ale and a nut brown.

Great Lakes Winter Ale
To quote myself: “A strong (6.2%) and malty ale spiced with cinnamon, ginger and orange peel. It has a rich ruby-orange colour and a sweet aroma with hints of fruit cake and caramel. The flavour starts quite sweet as well, but turns pleasantly spicy in the finish, with the orange peel and ginger being especially prominent as it warms up. This spiciness seems more up-front than I recall in last year’s version, but that’s quite alright, as it gives the beer a distinctive and enjoyable edge.”

Camerons Dark 266
A dark lager with a slightly murky ruby-brown colour. Nice aroma, with a good chocolate malt character with a bit of brown sugar. Similar malty sweetness in the flavour, followed by a bit of smoke, and a fresh hop finish. Medium bodied, quite suitable for the style. Like Waterloo Dark, it’s a fairly simple but enjoyable beer that is a good introduction for people who don’t think they like dark beers.

Trafalgar Abbey Belgian Spiced Ale
This is the last of the batch I tried, but I should’ve known better and opened it back in December in hopes of it being drinkable. Alas, like many Trafalgar beers I’ve tried in the last couple of years, it was infected despite being three months ahead of the supposed “best before date”, and had an aroma and flavour that sat somewhere between old sweat socks and pickle brine. It’s such a shame that a brewery with such an eclectic line-up has such poor quality control, as they’re really doing a disservice to themselves and Ontario’s craft brewers in general. Perhaps they should spend less time on their rebranding gimmicks and more time getting their core beers into a more stable condition before shipping them out.

Mill Street Barley Wine
Quoting myself again: “It has a clear, deep golden-orange colour with a good sized white head. The aroma has the sweet maltiness expected from the style, with a strong caramel character, but also a lot of orange/citrus notes that I don’t remember from the older versions. The flavour is very sweet off the top, with some spice and pepper in the middle, and strong orange peel in the finish along with a whisky-like heat that builds in intensity as the beer warms up.”

Old Credit Holiday Honey
Old Credit is one of those breweries that I rarely think about. Based in Port Credit, they have two year round brands: a “pilsner” which is more of a pale lager, and an “amber ale” which is essentially a Rickard’s Red clone. Microbrewed beer for mainstream tastes, I suppose. So I didn’t expect much from their holiday beer which is apparently available only from the brewery, and those moderate expectations were well met. It has an amber colour with a wispy head, and a simple, one-dimensional sweet malt aroma and flavour, with a faint hint of honey. It’s not offensive in any way – in fact, it’s inoffensive almost to a fault. And it has absolutely nothing in it that says “holiday” to me.

King Dark Lager
The first time I tried this beer a few years ago, I wasn’t that impressed. I guess I expected a dark beer to have a full body with big flavours. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate more subtle “dark” beer styles like dunkel, and realize now that King Dark Lager is a very good crack a that style. It pours a nice caramel-amber with a small off-white head. The aroma is malty, with notes of coffee and bread, and a grassy hops. Medium mouthfeel, and a very nice nutty malt flavour with hints of coffee and toffee, and a moderately hopped finish. Great stuff, especially if you get it fresh.

Heritage Black Currant Rye
Two years ago, this beer was a lager that was first made available at Volo Cask Days, and later as a limited bottle release. Last year, it became an ale that was, frankly, pretty bad. This year, it’s an ale again, but it’s been reformulated with some help from Perry Mason of Scotch-Irish, and it’s much better for it. Pretty ruby colour with a good size pink head. Great balance of malt and sweet-tart fruit in the aroma, while the flavour has a mild malt profile with a nice infusion of red currant. It’s a good fruit beer that’s sweet without being too sweet, but it’s also an odd choice for a winter seasonal – it really seems more summery to me.

Black Oak Nutcracker
This beer wasn’t actually part of the promo package, but I added it to the picture in order to make it more symmetrical, and to add another true winter/holiday beer to a somewhat slapdash selection. Nutcracker is a rich and robust porter laced with cinnamon, and it’s annual release is a highlight of my holiday season every year. That anticipation is one of the indicators of a great seasonal beer, and it’s also the reason that Nutcracker would’ve been a great addition to this package. Ah well, there’s always next year…

Thomas Hardy’s Ale

This article was originally written in January 2007 for the now-defunct food and drink website Gremolata. It was re-published here in September 2011, but back-dated to appear in the blog archives close to its original publication date.

Logic generally dictates that beer is best when fresh. Cask ale – which is beer in its purest, unadulterated form – will go off within a few days of the cask being tapped. Keg beer will last longer, but even the pasteurisation and forced carbonation can’t stop it from going stale after a few weeks. And if you’ve ever had to politely force down a lager that’s been sitting in the back of Aunt Shirley’s fridge since last year’s Christmas party, then you’re well aware of the effect that time can have on bottled brew.

But there are always exceptions that prove the rule, and when it comes to beer, there may be more than you think. Many styles of beer, including India Pale Ale, Bock and Imperial Stout, were created to last for months before consumption, and even beers that are not specifically intended to be kept have been known to age well. In one extreme example, a cache of around 250 bottles of beer dating back as far as 1869 was recently uncovered in the cellars of the White Shield Brewery in Burton-On-Trent, and those who have tasted some of the finds have declared them to be more than palatable.

While they may not be stocking 140-year-old bottles, some higher end restaurants have started taking the idea of vintage beer seriously, and have added some well-chosen bottles to their cellars. New York’s Gramercy Tavern recently brought in Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver – a well-known expert on pairing food and beer – to help assistant beverage director Kevin Barry in compiling a list of vintage beers and ciders to offer their customers. And it probably goes without saying that Toronto’s beerbistro has some somewhat rare bottles available for those who are willing to splurge a little.

While there are now a lot of breweries crafting big beers that are meant for aging, the granddaddy of today’s vintage beer scene is undoubtedly Thomas Hardy’s Ale. First brewed in 1968 by Eldridge Pope Brewery at the request of the Thomas Hardy Society to mark the 40th anniversary of the author’s death, the strong Barley Wine was then brewed on an annual basis from 1974 until 1999, when Eldridge Pope shut down operations. The brand was revived in 2003 by Phoenix Imports, an American distributor that had been bringing Thomas Hardy’s to the US since the very first vintage was brewed. They contracted O’Hanlon’s, a family brewery in Devon, England, to start brewing the beer again using the original recipe, and the annual tradition was restored.

At a trade tasting in New York City last fall, I had a chance to sample a recent vintage, and I found it to be exceptional. It poured a still, slightly hazy ruby-brown, and had a huge, sweet aroma of fruitcake with rich whiskey cream sauce and toffee. The mouthfeel was soft and full, and the flavour was very complex, with notes of port, whisky, dried fruit, blood orange and more, leading into a long, warm, lingering finish.

Of course, for Ontario beer drinkers, it generally takes some travelling to savour this rare brew, as it has rarely been available in this province. So there was much rejoicing recently when it was announced that Roland + Russell, a fine food, wine & spirits importer in Burlington, had added O’Hanlon’s to their import portfolio. A limited order of several different Thomas Hardy’s vintages was brought in for beerbistro, and once word got out via Bar Towel and The Toronto Star that they were accepting private orders for cases of the latest vintage at an astoundingly reasonable price ($112.80 per 24 x 8.5 oz), they were deluged with orders. If you didn’t get in on the advance order, there will be some cases available on consignment for a slightly higher price once the shipment arrives, and you will also be able to find it at some of Toronto’s beer-friendly bars and restaurants such as Volo and Smokeless Joe.

It’s worth noting that R+R are also representing the rest of the O’Hanlon’s line in Ontario, with an assortment of their excellent bottle conditioned ales – including Double Champion Wheat Beer, Royal Oak Traditional Bitter, Original Port Stout, and Yellowhammer Golden Ale – available for private ordering and at some establishments. And proving that they are serious about entering the speciality beer market, R+R have just announced that they will soon be repping Austria’s Schloss Eggenberg Brewery who, like O’Hanlon’s, are known for reviving a classic strong vintage beer: Samichlaus, a 14% Doppelbock that was once the strongest beer in the world. This is all very good news indeed for Ontario’s beer aficionados.

LCBO Winter Warmers 2006

This article was originally written in December 2006 for the now-defunct food and drink website Gremolata. It was re-published here in September 2011, but back-dated to appear in the blog archives close to its original publication date.

“Christmas time is here,
Time to drink some beer!
Give us ale, both dark and pale,
The best way to spread cheer!”
(with apologies to Charles Schultz & Vince Guaraldi)

While the holiday season is most often associated with mulled wine, rum & egg nog, and maybe wassail if you’re feeling particularly old-timey, there is also a great tradition of special beers being brewed for the colder months in general, and Christmas in particular. Usually stronger, darker and more flavourful than a brewery’s year-round beers, Christmas and winter beers can be found in pretty much any country that has a history of brewing. There’s even an annual Christmas beer festival in Belgium where more than 100 seasonal beers are served each year.

Here in Ontario, we have a more recent winter beer tradition in the form of the LCBO’s Winter Warmers promotion, which sees them bring together an assortment of strong beers from around the world each December, just in time for holiday enjoyment. This year’s selection is skewed heavily towards the UK, where the winter beers tend to be beefed up versions of classic ale styles, often augmented with spices or specialty malts and hops. Here are some notes on a half-dozen festive UK brews that are currently available in limited quantities at selected LCBO outlets:

Belhaven Wee Heavy ($3.10/500 mL, 6.5% abv, LCBO 698977)
Wee Heavy is a designation that been is use for a couple of centuries by Scottish brewers to refer to their strongest offerings. Analogous to England’s Barley Wine style, they are sometimes known as 90 Shilling (written 90/-) in reference to the usual invoice cost of a hogshead barrel of the style in the early 19th century. While some Wee Heavies can inch up towards the 10% abv mark, Belhaven’s version keeps the booze in check, making it much more quaffable. It features flavours of sweet malts, brown sugar & caramel, and a hint of smokiness joining the mellow hops in the finish.

Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2006 ($6.95/500 mL, 8.5% abv, LCBO 676213)
One of the highlights of each year’s Winter beer promotion is the arrival of the annual Fuller’s Vintage Ale. Brewed in limited quantities using a different recipe each year, these Barley Wine style ales are fine to drink right away, but also lend themselves to aging. Each bottle also comes in an embossed burgundy box, making it a great stocking stuffer for your favourite beer drinker. This year’s edition is a bright orange-amber ale with aroma of biscuits, sweet fruit, herbal hops and some alcohol dryness. The flavour is big and warm, like a classic English Pale Ale laced with a half-shot of smoky whisky. I suspect that it will improve with a bit of aging to mellow to boozy edges, but it’s still a fantastic sipper for a cold evening.

Greene King Strong Suffolk ($3.45/500 mL, 6.0% abv, LCBO 575530)
Greene King is one of England’s oldest breweries, and also one of the country’s largest thanks to a series of sometimes controversial buy-outs that it has undertaken in recent years. With Strong Suffolk, they go back to their roots, restoring the tradition of blended ales that was once quite common amongst breweries and publicans. This practice of mixing one beer with another was often employed as a means of using up older or spoiled beers by mixing them with younger, fresher stock, but it was also used for more legitimate reasons to produce quality products that customers enjoyed, such as the pub staple Black & Tan. In the case of the Strong Suffolk, they brew a 12% beer called Old 5X that is aged in oak vats for a minimum of two years, and then mix it a freshly brewed batch of a dark ale called BPA just before bottling. The result is a ruby-chestnut beer with a soft & sweet aroma, a smooth body that brings to mind a good cask ale, and a flavour that starts slow, but builds to include notes of sweet malt, raisins & prunes, and some slightly tart wood notes in the finish.

Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale ($3.95/550 mL, 6.0% abv, LCBO 408005)
Established in 1758, Samuel Smith is the oldest brewery in Yorkshire, and one of England’s oldest independent breweries. Their Winter Welcome is one of the best known UK seasonal beers throughout the world, and it is also one of the least traditional, as it is produced using artificial carbonation and is only available in filtered and pasteurized bottled form, whereas more traditional British ales are made available in more natural cask versions. Still, this is a pleasant amber ale, holding notes of caramel, mint, almonds and bread, along with the expected malt and hop characteristics. And since Samuel Smith has finally started shipping their beers in brown bottles rather than clear glass, you are now much less likely to find yourself with a lightstruck (aka “skunky”) pint when you open one of these.

St. Peter’s Winter Ale ($3.50/500 mL, 6.5% abv, LCBO 890079)
Known for their distinctive flask-like bottles, St. Peter’s brews ales that range from the traditional (Best Bitter, Old Style Porter, IPA) to the quirky (Cinnamon & Apple Ale, Lemon & Ginger Ale). Their winter ale falls into the former category, and is accurately described on the label as a “classic winter warmer”. It’s the darkest of the lot, pouring a deep, dark ruby-brown with a small tan head. As with the Strong Suffolk, it has a soft, cask-like body, which lends it even more of a traditional air. The aroma is roasty and smoky with notes of dark cherry and cocoa, and the flavour brings to mind an old style Porter, with strong chocolate, coffee and roasted malt notes, and a warming bitterness in the back of the throat.

Wychwood Bah Humbug ($3.25/500 mL, 6.0% abv, LCBO 3822)
Wychwood are the folks behind the popular Hobgoblin and Fiddler’s Elbow ales, as well as the nicely labelled but rather poor quality Black Wych Stout. Their seasonal Bah Humbug is a strong ale brewed with a healthy dose of cinnamon, and it comes through in both the aroma and flavour. The aroma also gives off notes of fruitcake, nutmeg, roasted malt, and a hint of chocolate, while the flavour is malty and fruity, some mild spice and banana bread coming through, followed by a faint hoppiness. It’s very nice stuff, but it’s also getting scarce already, as it hit the shelves a few weeks before the rest of the winter beers. Look around a bit and you be able to find a few bottles kicking around, but if you can’t, you’ve got the five previously mentioned beers to choose from, not to mention the rest of the winter release:

Chimay Blue ($3.20/330 mL, 9.0% abv, LCBO 357236)
De Koninck Amber Ale ($2.15/330 mL, 5.0% abv, LCBO 676882)
Innis & Gunn Limited Edition Oak-Aged Beer ($4.85/330 mL, 7.2% abv, LCBO 16337)
Okocim Porter ($2.45/330 mL, 8.3% abv, LCBO 340919)
Trafalgar Celebration Ale ($3.95/650 mL, 5.7% abv, LCBO 684878)
XO Beer ($3.95/330 mL, 8.0% abv, LCBO 527838)

Cheers, and Happy Holidays!