Strong brew

E xtra alcohol and lots of malts make barley wine shine
By LIZA WEISSTUCH  |  January 13, 2006

It's a Thursday in November, the longest working day of the year for Will Meyers, head brewer at Cambridge Brewing Company (1 Kendall Square, Cambridge, 617.494.1994). That’s because it’s the annual marathon brewing session for the restaurant’s Blunderbuss barley wine, the concoction that tastes like something of an un-beer but could very well be the biggest, fullest, and highest-alcohol brew you’ve ever sipped.

Sporting galoshes and looking ready for a day of plucking hops off the vine, Meyers consults with his two assistants on matters of temperature and specific gravity, and runs though verbal calculations to compute how much barley to add so they’ll end up with the targeted amount of fermentable sugars. For those who’ve yet to be initiated into the world of home brewing, that’s jargon for tallying the alcohol index in the brewing process.

The term "barley wine" didn’t slip into the lexicon until the beginning of the 20th century, but the ale was brewed long before that. Throughout history, it’s typically been referred to as a brewer’s "strong ale" or "stock ale," which indicates that it could be kept for a few years, its high alcohol content acting as a preserving agent. And because of its strength, it was sometimes used to enhance the character of more basic beers.

At microbreweries throughout the city, though, barley wines are intended to be sipped straight — no chaser, no frills, no dilution, no apologies. When made meticulously enough, barley wine needs little embellishment. It’s a centerpiece in itself, and its flavor dimensions — light honey, maple, deep toffee, floral hops, and, as it gets older, a hint of sherry — are the fruits of the labor of that Thursday in November at Cambridge Brewing Company.

Barley wine checks in at around 13 percent alcohol by volume — about three times as much as a standard golden ale. The higher alcohol content is due to massive amount of malts; about 1800 pounds of the stuff is used to produce 300 gallons of Blunderbuss — a significant increase from the 440 pounds that Meyers’s crew typically uses for a batch of golden ale. Such quantities lend themselves to a painstaking, time-consuming process that involves working with a double mash — more jargon for extracting fermentable sugars from the malt mixture twice instead of just once. But the bold flavors emerge because the brewers use only the first runnings, or the barley malt extracts with the most concentrated sugar. The process also requires doubling the boiling time to three hours, which further concentrates the potion.

When I leave at around 6 p.m., Meyers is instructing his rubber-booted crew on how to add the "nice, fine trickle of honey." That’s one of the last steps before the liquid goes into barrels to ferment for up to 10 days. But, Meyers makes sure to explain, it’s not as simple as just adding honey for flavoring.

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