Barley wines originated in England. They were brewed for British aristocracy as an alternative to wine: They wanted a beverage to accompany food that was a beer, but could take the place of wine. The term has nothing to do with the fermentation of grape juice. It refers directly to the strength of the brew, which in some instances can reach the alcohol content of wine.
Early English examples may have been anywhere between the strength of 7 percent to 9 percent alcohol by volume—not quite that of wine, but surely more than that of a typical English bitter. The first recorded commercial production of a barley wine was in the early 20th century, by Bass and Co. Brewery of Burton-On-Trent, England. Today, the style has achieved great popularity in the United States, with almost every craft brewery producing an example of the style. American versions tend to be bigger, bolder and hoppier than their English counterparts, with some boasting an alcohol content of 12 percent or higher.
One could say that wheat wines originated in the United States, although some German and Belgian brewers have been using a high percentage of wheat to make a strong beer. The American craft brewer made the wheat wine theirs by adding more hops and using a clean, fermenting-ale yeast strain to give the beer a uniquely American taste. In my opinion, this style is quite underproduced domestically.
Here in Syracuse, Empire Brewing Co. currently has both styles on tap. Our barley wine is a unique hybrid of English and American brewing. For the base of the beer, we use a high-quality English barley, called Marris Otter, from malter Thomas Fawsett & Sons. Maris Otter tends to lend a bready character to the beer while it also leaves a full, rich body, and is slightly darker in color, resulting in a barley wine with a rich, ruby-red hue. It is then hopped with strong American hops, giving it a balanced hop bitterness with a fruity hop flavor and aroma. It carries an alcohol content of 12 percent, but hides it nicely behind its complex flavors.
Our wheat wine is an animal all its own. First, it has more than 50 percent wheat in the malt bill of the recipe. This is a requirement for the style in order to be classified as a wheat wine. The remainder of the malt used in the beer is barley. Both of these grains are grown regionally, the wheat originating in Penn Yan, while the barley comes from Maine. They then were malted in a small malt house in Massachusetts; the process was entirely organic.
Cascade hops grown at Foothill Hops Farm in Munnsville in Madison County were used to accent the delicate flavors of the locally grown grains. The final product has a soft mouth feel with just the right amount of hops to round out the flavor. Hints of citrus and passion fruit linger on the palette after the beer is swallowed, and at times even a touch of apricot can be detected, although no fruit was added during the process.
Both styles are available at Empire for you to try. They also will be poured this Saturday, March 5, at Winter Warmer, a new beer festival taking place in the International Pavilion at the New York State Fairgrounds. Beers exclusively from Empire Brewing Co. and Syracuse’s Middle Ages will be served throughout the event, which is 21 and older. The bands Dark Hollow, Soul Risin, Boots and Shorts, The Brethren and Salt City Ramblers will entertain and the event features food from local restaurants. Quaffing begins at 7 p.m. and lasts until 11 p.m. Tickets cost $30 in advance. See the ad on page 23 for details.
Tim Butler is director of Brewing Operations at Empire Brewing Co., 120 Walton St.
Speaking of beer, our seasonal two-bottle sample of Magic Hat was delivered a few weeks ago, and the reviews are mixed. The South Burlington, Vt.-based brewer has created a Spring Fever Mix, a variety 12-pack of four springtime suds to accompany the return of birds, buds and green grass. Venerable #9—quite possibly Magic Hat’s tastiest brew—accompanies Vinyl, a spring lager with a deep amber hue; Demo, a dark India Pale Ale; and Circus Boy, an American-styleHefeweizen brewed with organic lemongrass.
Full of flavor, both Vinyl and Demo were too heavy for our tasters’ palates, leaving them scratching their heads that something so hearty would be considered a spring beer. Vinyl carries a sweet malt taste in its 5.1 percent alcohol content, while Demo’s 6 percent alcohol content brings a citrusy, bitter flavor.
The 12-pack is available through early April. Major retailers carry Magic Hat, but if you can’t find it locally, check out their website, www.magichat.net, for suggestions.
The Big Easy At the Wineries
Another sure sign of spring’s imminence is Mardi Gras, which leads into Lent and ultimately Easter. The Cayuga Lake Wine Trail holds its ninth annual Mardi Gras celebration Saturday and Sunday, March 5 and 6, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at all 16 wineries.
Revelers will receive a wine glass, wine and food pairings at each winery and recipe cards. Naturally, the featured foods have a New Orleans theme. New this year is a scavenger hunt, where visitors can win a case of gold medal winning wines. Grand prizes include stays at Finger Lakes bed and breakfasts.
Tickets cost $25 in advance, $30 at the door, with designated drivers paying $20. To order tickets, visit www.cayugawinetrail.com.