Before I make my California barleywine choices clear, here’s a little history to muddle up the picture. Barleywine as a style unto its own has both evolved and changed course since its first tentative mentions in history.
Much like stouts and porters being intertwined, barleywines and old ales were sometimes one and the same. Names being less rules than vague guideposts. The name barleywine started popping up more frequently starting in 1870, though it was seen before then. It wasn’t really until 1900 that Bass actually became known for it.
Fast forward to the Craft Beer revolution when us Americans got our hands on the style and began adding hops to the point that our current taxonomy has to specify English or American style. The English style will be more fruit driven with raisin and other sweet flavors. The American version is much more bitter and higher ABV.
That history leads us to my selections (in no particular order) that will give you a firm grounding in what California is brewing in regards to the decidedly non-wine related Barleywine:
• Golden Road Brewing Marleywine
• Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Sucaba
• Telegraph Brewing Co. Rhinoceros
• Ballast Point Brewing 3 Sheets Barleywine
• Moylan’s Old Blarney Barleywine
• AleSmith Brewing Company Old Numbskull
• Stone Brewing Old Guardian
• Lagunitas Brewing Company Olde GnarlyWine
• Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Bigfoot Barleywine
• 21st Amendment Brewing Lower De Boom Barleywine
I suggest starting your tasting adventure with the classic Bigfoot. If you can possibly find older versions, even better. Then I would move on to nearby(ish) Moylan’s for another more traditional take on the style. For the San Diego take on the style, you simply cannot go wrong with Ballast Point, Stone or AleSmith, though I am partial to the Numbskull on name points alone. You want big and barreled? Start with Marleywine from Golden Road and then take on Sucaba which was just recently released. Looking for spice? The Santa Barbara Rhino from Telegraph is the way to head. For the last two on the list: if you want cans, then 21st Amendment has little 10-ounce ones (if you can find them) and if you want to cellar, then Olde GnarleyWine is a good bet.
Find more of Sean Inman’s writing on his blog, Beer Search Party.