Brewsday: Mill St. Brewery Barley Wine

Going into last week’s entry about mead, I had some fairly high expectations.  “Mead” is a term shrouded in history, mystery and a whole lot of new-age medieval-revivalist bullshit mumbo-jumbo.  There is the promise of ancient flavor and a near-physical texture to the drink, but what did I get?   A not-unpleasant, extraordinarily expensive version of a Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

I’m sorry, it’s been seven days — two of them Christmas days, even! — and I still feel hosed.  I can’t help it!  I was genuinely hoping to have dipped into something magnificent and historical, somehow becoming part of a tradition simply by quaffing it.  Instead, I spent thirteen bucks on a plastic bottle with a picture of a bumblebee on it. I did not choo-choo-choose this.

But indeed I did soldier on, continuing my quest for a traditional winter drink that would satisfy my thirst for both flavor and history. While researching mead (yes, I do research for this, thanks), I noticed a mention or two of barley wine in my travels, which I thought might be an interesting possibility.  Brewing has been around as long as grain, after all, so it would make sense that someone would have tried to make a wine out of it, right?  Humankind has tried to make wine out of everything else, after all, from anything that grows on, above or out of the surface of the earth — why not barley?

Could this be my chance to truly taste history?


Well, sort of.

But first a little bit about the product I did manage to find, and the people who make it. Mill St. Brewery, like so many of the beer producers that I end up choosing, is a local Toronto brewer located in our recently-revitalized Distillery District.  Perfectly situated to cater to upwardly-mobile micro-brew fans, they dabble in everything from a organics to stouts, ales to coffee-flavored beers, and are now producing an annual Barley Wine as their winter novelty.  As a start-up brewer, they do well with the various awards that beer industry types seem to give each other; as a tourist attraction, you could certainly do worse than their sunny patio nestled in the middle of a historical setting.

As a whole, Mill St. does very well with their niche as a premium “small brewery”, though they’re getting to the point now where you have a hard time missing them in Southern Ontario.  Their products are interesting enough that I always think carefully about them before I leave them on the shelf, because (as I believe it may have been mentioned once or twice before) of my outrageously cheap habits and their generally high-end pricing.

But God forgive me, I am a sucker for something different.

As it turns out, the strict tradition of a Barley Wine only dates back to the dawn of the 20th Century; prior to that they might have been known as “stock” or “strong” ales, the result of whatever stage of the parti-gyle process from which the brew was drawn.  Those first beers drawn from the mash would have been downright heftily alcoholic, darkly colored and closest to what we’d know as a barley wine today; those drawn afterwards would have been lighter and considerably less potent, going on to lives as easier ales.  It feels like this is the appropriate time to mention that despite the name, this drink is still very much a beer.  It’s only like a wine in a few key ways:

  • It costs as much as wine does, and maybe a little more
  • It’s as alcoholically strong as a wine, ranging from 8% to 13%, with the average landing in around 10%
  • It’s frequently aged to mellow out and add complexity to its flavors, comparable to red wines

Other than that, you’re dealing with a beer, here.  There’s a broad variety of them available, varying in color from a caramel brown to a near-black, with intensities of flavor to match.  I was very curious to see where Mill St.’s entry into the fray would fall.

Bottled in an interesting, era-appropriate-appearing ceramic bottle with a hinge-top, Mill St.’s Barley Wine is one of those items that’s just fun to buy.  It looks different, it feels like you’re picking up something unique, and you don’t even mind that you’ve paid $13 for what amounts to three-quarters of a bottle of actual wine.  Unlike most other kinds of novelty beers, barley wine is still relatively unique on the shelves, and the packaging helps to reinforce the fact that, what the hell, it’s a special occasion.

Even if you knew nothing at all about what you were getting into, pouring out your first glass would give you heart.  With almost no nose at all, Mill St.’s barley wine fills the glass with a lovely amber color, topped only by a very light foam that’s followed by the very lightest carbonation.  It’s not a still drink, but it sure looks like it at first glance, and the whole thing is a bit disconcerting until you make it to the first sip.

And wow, what a sip.  Seriously, when you read about people calling barley wine the cognac of beers, it isn’t because they’re being pretentious.  It’s because they’re giving you an instruction: This is meant to be handled like a cognac — slowly, carefully, deliberately.  There’s a lot of flavor going on in this glass, a heavy fermented sweetness with an immediate alcoholic presence, balanced out by a rush of hoppy bitterness just to keep you from being overwhelmed.  Thankfully not sticky-sweet, the barley wine will sit on your tongue longer than any other ale you’ve had, but quite pleasantly.  This is a drink that earns itself a considered approach, and I think would do best served on its own.  Don’t break out the chips for this one, because it doesn’t need the help.  It can handle sitting with you on a dark, windy night in January just fine, all by itself.

It’s funny, but in barley wine I found all the things I was hoping for in mead.  I can’t judge the class of beverage based on one sample, but if Mill St.’s is typical of the group then it’s just what I was looking for:  A drink with a complicated flavor that goes one step beyond conventional brews, and that even boasts something of a murky history — though not quite as ancient as my inner nerd might have hoped.  And while it would appear as though I’ll have some searching to do before I find another barley wine readily available, I’m definitely glad for having found this one.  

If you chance across it and you’re ready for a beer that demands the same discipline from you as a fine liquor, I definitely recommend it.

Rating (and this is the last time I use him, I promise):  5 Ebeneezers out of 5.


  • Tina

    I absolutely and whole heartedly agree with your evaluation of this beer…er…wine. No, beer? It was sweet without being saccharine, darkly rich and complex, and pleasantly hoppy in a way that reminded you that you were drinking something *crafted* and not just *brewed*.

    I plan on having a few bottles of this stored up before our next winter storm…which will be in what, three days? Sigh.

  • kristie

    I once ordered barleywine thinking it would be magical like a scene out of LOTR (turns out I was thinking Brandywine). It was TERRIBLE. Maybe I got the wrong kind, though, so I’ll give this one a try tonight.

    I do love mead, though. Like, LOVE. I’m a sucker for sweets, and I generally regard anything expensive as “better than things that are less expensive,” which is terribly stupid but at least I can admit it.

    Two more things: consider your Simpson’s reference appreciated, and also go to your Ross/TJ Maxx/Marshalls or whatever you have up in Canada (didn’t you just use a form of the word “hoser” in this exact blog) and buy Tina a dutch oven. She needs one, and the good, good brands (not Le Creuset, but at least Cuisinart and Staub) are almost always available for like, 30 bucks. US bucks. Again, I’m not sure if you Canadians have graduated to paper currency or are still trading in antlers.

    • Mike

      Well, as long as you’re expecting liquor that tastes like beer and not beer that taste like… well, beer, then you’ll be okay. And as a Canadian I totally pull cultural rank on rating quality — I’ll stake fifty moose antlers on it!

      As for the dutch oven, I think the holiday haul might have taken care of it. To be totally honest, purchasing anything for the kitchen puts my self-esteem at risk: Getting the wrong thing results in sad, amused looks from her that make me want to ram my head into a door out of sickening shame.

  • Tom

    Brew your own!