Barley Wines Offer a Safer Bet Than Stocks

And pay better dividends.

After the big comedown of the holiday season in Seattle, seasonal affective disorder always sets in. We look to a giant rodent for weather predictions and count the extra minutes of light with each passing sunset. But for beer lovers, this time of year is like Christmas all over again. That's because breweries around the country are releasing their heady barley wines, the beer-sipping equivalent of port. You'll see the phrase "barley wine style ale" on the front label of all American barley wines. Our country's liquor laws require truth in advertising, and labels must make the distinction that barley wine is not in fact a wine. As a style of beer, it dates back to the late 1800s. Calling it a strong beer is like calling Angelina Jolie pretty—technically true, but oh, such an oversimplification. In fact, these strong beers are far from burly, and have an incredible range of color, aroma, and flavor. "Barley wine" likely refers to the fact that these beers have an alcohol strength of anywhere between 8 percent and 12 percent. Another source of their moniker may be their fruit notes, which range from fresh peach to stewed raisins. Barley wines age beautifully and quickly, giving you a fun and relatively cheap alternative to stocking the basement with wine. In as little as six months, a barley wine will go through noticeable changes: The hops will mellow over time, while still contributing their floral or citrus notes. Much like what happens to the flavor of a port as it ages, a barley wine's fruit flavors will slide from notes of fresh fruit to dried ones, and the beer's caramel and toffee notes will become more complex. Barley wine can age easily up to 10 years in the cool of a Northwest basement. The Old Horizontal barley wine from Pennsylvania-based Victory Brewing makes the perfect brew for discovering this style. Old Horizontal has a malty, sweet aroma punctuated by boozy raisins and fruity chutney, with a solid punch of hops at the end. The beer comes in 12-ounce bottles instead of 750-milliliter ones, and the smaller container is more appropriate for this stronger style. That's because the smaller the bottle, the faster the aging process. You could save the Old Horizontal until August or September and see a little mellowing and deepening of flavor; better yet, start collecting with a few bottles and open one every six months. In our own backyard, the Northwest's favored barley wine has to be Pike Brewing's Old Bawdy. The brewery further endears this beer to fans by holding a vertical tasting of as many as six past vintages each time it releases a new one (sorry, this year's tasting already took place). The current Old Bawdy, available in stores now, pours a burnt-cherry color in the glass with a good thumb of foam. The smell of rosemary and caramel jump out, followed by a distinct note of candied grapefruit, and I could go on and on. With wine and port you might wait years to get the sort of complexity that barley wines give upon release. If you can only keep your hands off them, you'll see how much more they give up two years from now.

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