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American Strong Ale/Barleywine

The ubiquitous “American Strong Ale.” How is it that the likes of Stone Arrogant Bastard and RJ Rockers Bell Ringer can be somehow lumped into the same category as Sam Adams Utopias and Mendocino Eye of the Hawk? What an odd set of bedfellows. Well, it goes right to our preference to label everything. Scads of reviews, the entire BJCP, raging traditionalists… all of these and more seem to be constantly attempting to stuff square pegs into round holes, while some simply disdainfully assert that “just because you can brew it, doesn’t mean you should.” Well, that may be all very well for a crotchety old traditionalist, but it goes directly against the heart of what makes American craft beer so great in the first place: blatant disregard for traditionalism, or at least a respect for traditions while breaking every traditional rule and constantly pushing the envelope.
Now, don’t get me wrong, labels are useful. If we handed you a light golden ale with a massive hop flavor and aroma, and then told you it was a German-style bock, you would rightly laugh us out of town. However, one of the most basic tenets of the craft beer movement is thinking outside of the box, creating new styles and sub-genres and anti-genres. So then some forward-looking craft brewer at some point brewed a beer that didn’t fit into any category, neatly or otherwise. It was strong, and the brewer was American. So the term “American strong ale” was used. And stuck, because other brewers brewed equally unclassifiable beers, in stiff opposition and a thumbing of the nose at the establishment of beerdom that says “set out to brew a good example of X style, and do it.” Rather, it seems many brewers these days say to themselves, “Perhaps I’ll take some of this malt and that malt, a load of these and those hops, some honey, brown sugar, oak cubes, and lavender, throw it into a used pepper barrel with Hershey’s syrup and Reddi Whip, blend some red jell-o and Garbanzo beans, cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa, grapefruit, pine needles and lemon zest, and we’ll see how it turns out!” The available ingredients drive the style in American strong ale, the ingredients or the very creativity of the brewer, but clearly anything but a traditional style guideline. And this type of “innovation,” (or rebellion or what have you) is what ultimately, eventually, leads to new styles being created so that the traditionalists can once again pigeonhole that beer. It is a never-ending cycle. And luckily, at least for now, the American Strong Ale brewers are far, far ahead of the agencies like the BJCP that try their best to classify. American Strong Ale, in short, is a beer that defies classification, and the category is a catch-all for such beers. Give some a try, and you will find some of the most complex and innovative beers in the world today.

American Barleywine, however, is a bit easier to identify: as a sub-genre of American Strong Ale, it is a more traditional English Barleywine, but brewed with American hops and generally far more hoppy than its English counterpart, though still with a massive malt character and an alcohol percentage over 9%. Anchor Brewing Company created the style with Old Foghorn, and it is a classic. For an exceptionally hoppy barleywine, give Rogue’s Old Crustacean a try.