Strong brew

By LIZA WEISSTUCH  |  January 13, 2006

"The barley wine takes about three to 10 days to ferment," he says. "What it can’t digest — what’s left over — is the ‘beer’ taste. We control those enzymes by hitting different temperatures, so we control how sweet or how dry the taste is. We know which sugars are easier for the yeast strains to consume." The sweetness manifests when the deep amber drink makes contact with the palate, but as you swallow it, the hops kick in with a bitter richness, which makes savoring it something of a proactive endeavor.

The flavor also depends on the barrel in which it’s aged; this year Meyers is using three different types — French oak originally used for pinot noir; American oak originally used for cabernet sauvignon; and charred white-oak barrels from the Buffalo Trace distillery, which makes Blanton’s bourbon. Cambridge Brewing Company’s barley wine is slated for release on New Year’s Day; you can try all three varieties on Barley Wine Night on January 25. But if your curiosity is piqued now, pick up a six-pack of Brooklyn Brewery’s version, dubbed Monster Ale, at Downtown Wine and Spirits (225 Elm Street, Somerville, 617.625.7777).

Its intricate maltiness makes barley wine a necessary object when it comes to girding yourself against the numbing winter chill. Herb Lindtveit, one of the head brewers at Boston Beer Works (112 Canal Street, Boston, 617.896.BEER; 61 Brookline Avenue, Boston, 617.536.BEER), speaks zealously about his pursuit of that complexity in BBW’s Hercules Strong Ale. He likens the brewing process to making strong coffee: "We put the mash in the mash tun for about an hour to convert enzymes, and the malt converts starches in the grain into sugars. Then we run it off halfway, which takes an hour. Then we take everything out and let it rest."

But even with all the attention paid to each step in the process, no single element plays as major a role in shaping the flavors as time itself. "Barley wine requires lots of aging time," says Lindtveit, who lets Hercules flex its flavor muscles for guests beginning this month. "When it’s done fermenting, the alcohol is really hot, really evident, but it mellows over time. It just takes time to mellow out — just to make it a little better."

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