One of a handful of styles that originated in Europe (in this case, Great Britain), that the lovely brewers on this side of the Atlantic have tweaked and toyed with and definitely have given their own unique signature to, hence the name, is American Barleywine. One of the biggest, boldest, and most flavorful of all the beers out there (yes, since it is made out of grain rather that fruit, it IS a beer and not a wine) this is a style that is not for the faint of heart. That friend you have that's on a steady diet of the fizzy yellow stuff that comes in an aluminum bottle? This isn't a beer you should have them try on just a whim.
American Barleywine Characteristics
Barleywine, be it English OR American, is much of the time the strongest offering a brewery will have in its arsenal. American versions will almost always have more emphasis on hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma than their English counterparts, and will also focus on using native hop varietals high in alpha oil. Even though the hops are present and in your face, that doesn't necessarily mean that the beer has to be unbalanced. The aroma of these beers is a very rich, malty intensity that will display the citrusy or resiny American hops, along with some strong fruity esters and bold alcohol aromatics. The malt character will be sweet, caramelly, bready, or neutral. The degree of strength will often subside with age; you'll know a fresh bottle when you open it, trust me. Their color can range from light amber to medium copper, with some garnet highlights. Unlike English Barleywine, most rarely are darker than a light brown. Look for a moderately low to large off-white to light tan head that may have a low retention due to age or strength. These beers are generally clear, and will show off great depth and character, many times displaying the legs that you look for in wines. Flavor-wise, American Barleywine has a strong, intense malt flavor with noticeable bitterness and a moderately low to moderately high malty sweetness that will increase with age. Hop bitterness can range from strong to VERY aggressive, and in some fresh versions will rival that of an Imperial India Pale Ale. Because of all those hops, the balance should always seem bitter. Along with the low to medium fruity esters, the next thing you'll probably notice is the alcohol presence and some heat. This is the last thing that will let you know you're dealing with a pretty big beer. The mouthfeel of these beers will be full-bodied and chewy, with a velvety, complex texture, just falling short of syrupy.
American Barleywine Food Pairings
Food pairings with American Barleywine prove to be a bit of a challenge, because you're already dealing with a strong, intense, fully-flavored beer that is quite enjoyable just on its own and in some cases, doesn't need to be complicated with some grub on the table. However, if you are motivated to partake in some pairings with these beers, there are numerous cheeses as well as a few desserts that match up well. Bleu, Stilton, Gorgonzola, Gruyere, and a deeply aged cheddar cheese will make a nice compliment to these beers. For desserts, anything rich and sweet such as a chocolate hazelnut torte or a toffee caramel cheesecake would be a solid choice with a goblet of this multifaceted elixir.
Aging American Barleywine
One last thing I want to mention about American Barleywine is the importance of aging. As I've stated to many people, in my opinion fresh bottles of this style that are right out of the gate are monstrously hoppy and bitter, and in a lot of cases resemble a fuller-bodied Imperial India Pale Ale. Additionally, sort of the opposite sometimes happens - when a high-gravity Imperial IPA is aged a few years, it resembles a fresh American Barleywine. Even more so than the English versions, I feel that these beers need an absolute minimum of 1 year in your cellar to break some of the sharp edges of the beer and give them a chance to settle out a bit. I know some dedicated hopheads that enjoy it fresh, so enter at your own risk. I also know more than a few connoisseurs of this style that will go out of their way to age multiple vintages of the same beer, and will do a vertical tasting to pick out the nuances that these beers will develop over time, and that is incredibly fun, as well as educational. The most important thing always is to have fun with it. Cheers!