Barley wine: Beer or wine?

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Wine is wine, and beer is beer, and never the two shall meet. Right?

Not so fast. While there are certainly distinctions between the two, there's more overlap than you might think. I know a lot of wine enthusiasts who would never consider enjoying a beer, and vice versa. And while I don't expect to change any minds, I present for your consideration: barley wine.

It's made from grain, and is sometimes flavored with hops, so it's definitely a beer. But the alcohol content ranges from 8-15 percent, and the complexly flavored beverage can age gracefully for years, like a wine. In fact, some barley wines are even bottled and sold with vintage dates, such as two of those tasted below. Also like wine, the history of making barley wine extends back to the ancient Greeks who, although they wouldn't have had access to hops, made a fermented grain beverage by the same name.

Modern barley wine was first popularized in England in the late 19th century, and in the United States about a century later. The styles in the two countries, however, have diverged a great deal since then. Classic English barley wine tends to be darker in color, with more pronounced malty, fruity, and sweet notes, and a lower alcohol content.

American barley wines, on the other hand, tend to be aggressively hopped to counteract the natural sweetness of the brew, and are consequently higher in bitterness. They are also usually, although not always, higher in alcohol content, and lighter in color.

Regardless of their provenance, however, barley wines are almost always thick in texture, verging on syrupy, noticeably alcoholic, only slightly carbonated, and complex in flavor, due to the concentration of malt and hops, as well as aging in various types of oak barrels. They also tend to be quite a bit more expensive than most beers, partly due to the labor and time needed to make and age them, and to the higher taxes applied to beverages with such high alcohol content.

2015 J.W. Lees Harvest Ale ($9/9.3 oz. bottle; alcohol by volume [ABV] 11.5 percent), made in Manchester, England, is aged in barrels that once housed the great Scotch whisky Lagavulin. The resultant golden-amber brew has a perceptible smokiness on the palate, along with rich aromas of molasses and honey. The bubbles are subdued compared to most beers, but lively enough to keep the beer from becoming heavy. Paired with a cheese course, this would be pure heaven.

North Coast Brewing Class of '88 ($12/750 mL bottle; ABV 10 percent), brewed in Fort Bragg, California, is more of what we expect from a beer, with a pale honey color, citrusy hops on the nose, a mellow bitterness, and far more carbonation on the palate. While distinctly less sweet than the Harvest Ale, it will appeal to fans of wheat beer with its touch of grainy sweetness and aromas of lemon and orange. It is also lower in alcohol, which can allow for slightly more liberal consumption.

The growing barley wine phenomenon is not limited to England and the United States. 2010 Birrificio del Ducato L'Ultima Luna ($16/11.2 oz. bottle; ABV 13 percent) hails from Roncole Verdi di Busseto, a village southeast of Milan in Italy's Parma region. The beer was aged for 18 months in a used Amarone cask--one of the great wines of Italy--and has spent the last seven years mellowing and developing an almost port-like quality in the bottle.

The beer has virtually no carbonation, which has taken on a deep tawny hue, and a viscous, almost oily texture. The flavors of butterscotch and milk chocolate are punctuated by a bourbon-like note and a finish of warming clove. While the average beer drinker might not be a fan, I can see it taking its place as an after-dinner drink with serious wine and spirits geeks.

So, yes, it's true that wine is wine, and beer is beer. But the two shall, and do, meet in this curious phenomenon called barley wine. And whether you enjoy a malty, hoppy brew, or an unctuous, syrupy dessert wine, you can find something to love somewhere on barley wine's diverse, and delicious, spectrum.

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