Summit brewer Eric Harper dug deep into the history books for this pre-Prohibition beer. Photo: Pioneer Press
When it comes to Kentucky’s proud indigenous products, one thinks of ham, bacon and bourbon, a holy trinity that has given generations of Americans immeasurable pleasure. To that list please add a most unusual ale, the Kentucky Common.
You’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of the style. The beer was popular around Louisville more than a century earlier, when the rank-and-file laborers favored it. Kentucky Common was often made with a blend of barley and corn. Of course, the cob-based vegetable is an essential ingredient in bourbon, which is also made according to a process known as sour mash.
Basically, grains and water are boiled to create nutrient-rich mash that’s blended with a bit of acidic spent mash that’s chockfull of live yeast. (Envision making sourdough bread with a starter.) The acids keep harmful bacteria and unwanted yeast at bay, allowing the mash to continue on its path to an oak barrel.
In these dark, frigid depths of winter, piney IPAs just don’t cut it. Neither do prickly pilsners or even an inky stout. When the mercury dips low and the heater is cranked high, there’s one style of beer that’s guaranteed to stoke your stomach furnace: barley wine.
Consider this a most delicious oxymoron. The British-born barley wine contains no grapes. In fact, the beer style has nothing in common with Chardonnay or Merlot — save for an alcohol percentage that often tops double digits. Perhaps that explains why the thick, sometimes fruity, sometimes hoppy, always strong ale has become one of wintertime’s signature belly-warming brews, providing the liquid courage to shovel out the driveway yet again.
Broadly speaking, barley wines are broken down into several camps. British barley wines, like J.W. Lees & Co.’s Vintage Harvest Ale, are typically less brawny and more rounded. On the flip side, American brewers have a heavy hand with bitterness and booze. Case in point: Great Divide Brewing’s Old Ruffian packs more than 85 international bittering units (IBUs) and 10 percent ABV, while Rogue Ales’ XS Old Crustacean boasts more than 100 IBUs and an 11.5 percent ABV. Drink two, and it’s good night for you.
Here are five of our favorite barley wines for surviving winter’s chill. Continue reading