An American‑Style Beer That’s Not for Americans
Barley wine in Brussels
Here in the undisputed capital of beer lies the undisputed capital of beer pubs, The Delirium Café. Like most pubs in Belgium, it calls itself a café, though coffee is in short supply.
At The Delirium Café, there are at any time between 2000 and 3000 beers on offer, which puts it in the Guinness Book of World Records as the pub with the most types of beer available—including one barley wine.
Brasserie Sainte-Helene Barley Wine, like all barley wines, is not a wine at all. It’s a very strong beer—12 percent ABV—that somehow got a fancier moniker. This is not a beer for knocking back during the baseball game or at the pub with your buddies. No, this is a beer for getting knocked on your ass.
Contrary to what’s going on in the rest of the beer world, Belgian brews are declining in potency, at least according to Belgian beer expert Luc De Raedemaeker. He says a combination of changing tastes and stricter drunk-driving laws are lowering the alcohol content in traditionally strong Belgian beers.
This makes them more like “session beers,” so-called because they are suitable for a session of drinking with your buddies. In England, where they typically drink low-alcohol beers, it’s common to go out all night and drink out of fat pint glasses. In Belgium, a drinker will typically only have a few beers out of small glasses.
But the whole point of a barley wine is that it’s strong; this is the only known definition of barley wine. And that definition doesn’t even hold all the time. Beer blogger Martyn Cornell says there is little difference between a barley wine and an old ale. He says the term is “effectively meaningless,” and doesn’t really apply even to strong beer, since strong imperial stouts are never classified as barley wines.
At the Delirium Café, however, there is such a thing as barley wine. When I asked the bartender if barley wine really is real, he looked at me with the kind of incredulous look you give someone before a strong slap.
It was indeed real, but they only had one of them available, and he had to dig through thousands of bottles in the back before he could produce the 375 ml bottle of Ste-Helene’s. Real, but not terribly popular.
Ste-Helene describes their barley wine as an American-style beer, but it doesn’t taste like any kind of beer I’ve ever had in America. It’s strong, malty, dry, and after finishing half the bottle, it feels like you’ve been clubbed across the back of the head.
By the time I finished, it was like I’d been sitting in the pub for an hour and a half. Barley wine, whatever it is, is not for wimpy North Americans. Only seasoned European drinkers should be allowed near it.