Drink: Heavy gravity, man

Michael Jackson comes on strong about barley wine
Some of Britain's finest brewers are also wine merchants, having originally imported the grapey beverage to stock alongside their beers in their own pubs and hotels. A notable example is Adnams, with its brewery by the lighthouse in the tiny resort of Southwold, Suffolk.

As East Anglia is the Grande Champagne of English barley-growing, it is doubly appropriate that Adnams' brewery makes a particularly good "wine" from this grain. The hard-to-find brew, called Adnams Tally-Ho Barley Wine, is produced only in winter. I hope its foxy name does it no harm in the present climate of opinion. Equally, I pray that the old-established beer-style "Barley Wine" survives. The designation does seem to be vanishing from many brewers' ranges, perhaps the victim of its own quaintness.

Similar brews, sometimes darker and more chocolatey, often less strong, and frequently on draught, are known as Winter Warmers or Old Ales (Britain has no fewer than 120 of the latter). On other occasions, the term "Strong Ale" is thought to suffice, particularly in the case of paler, drier brews. The terms overlap. Within the broad selection of strongish winter brews, a barley wine is usually at the upper end of the scale, between 6.0 and 12.0 per cent alcohol by volume, or even slightly more. Traditionally, it came in small, nip bottles as though to protect the drinker from excess. In the days before the strengths of beers appeared on labels, barley wine was the stuff of myth and legend. In those innocent times, the jazz musicians of my provincial youth were addicted to nothing more sinister. The ratio of potency to volume removed the risk of needing a loo mid-solo.

The origins of the designation barley wine are not certain. The notion of producing a beer to match "foreign wines" was mentioned in Britain as early as 1768, and the term seems to date from the early 1800s. My guess is that it especially implied a beer with a strength approaching that of a wine, though it could also suggest a vinous flavour. Colour can vary from a Sauternes-like gold to claret or Burgundy.

Even if the palest of malts are used, the density of grain required to produce a strong brew can make for a full colour. This same density can require a longer boil in the brew-kettle, and that also makes for some caramelisation. Brewers producing a barley wine often seek to balance this sweetness with a hefty dosage of hops. The result can be a complex of powerful flavours.

Even a wine yeast finds it hard to create alcohol levels of much more than 12-14 per cent, and beer cultures are less muscular. The problem is that the yeasts get drunk on their own alcohol, and go to sleep. The traditional means of awakening the yeasts was to roll the barrels round the brewery yard once a week. Alternatives are to "rouse" the brew in the fermentation vessel with a paddle, or pump oxygen through it.

When the yeast is thus encouraged to return to work, it begins to create flavours that are fruitier and winier than in a conventional beer. Some barley wines have as long as three months' fermentation and maturation at the brewery.

A conventional beer, once put into a cask, will last only a few weeks - and only days after it has been tapped - before souring. A barley wine, protected by its great strength, will not only survive, but gain in complexity, in an unbroached cask. Its malt sugars will further ferment, and its flavours meld, while its richness and sweetness may even be better balanced by a hint of acidity.

An Adnams Tally-Ho from the winter of 1996 was stored in the cask for a year at the famously fastidious White Horse, of Parson's Green, London. I tasted it the other day, and found it creamy, nutty, cherryish and winey, with tightly combined flavours. The beer's alcohol content is listed at 6.5, but its original gravity (the measure of malt sugars in the original brew) suggests that it could, over time, reach nearer 7.5. Judging from the sensation of mellow warmth it produced as I sipped, I think it was on target.

A couple of miles from The White Horse, the Young's brewery produces a classically fruity barley wine, almost a banana liqueur, at around 7.0 per cent, under the name Old Nick. These days, this is less well-known in Britain than in the American market, where its name and devilish label cause splendid offence in the Bible Belt. Young's also has a Winter Warmer, at 5.0-plus, with a suggestion of black treacle.

Local rival Fuller's has no fewer than four strong ales. Fuller's 1997 Vintage Ale, with a secondary fermentation and yeast sediment in the bottle, is hugely complex, with rooty aromas and flavours that are almost gin- like (probably from the Target variety of hop). The similar Golden Pride, filtered and pasteurised for bottling, is more flowery and honeyish. Both have 8.5 per cent. Fuller's bottle-conditioned 1845 Celebration Strong Ale, at 6.3 per cent, is sherbety, with lemon-pith notes (Goldings hops), crisp and astonishingly drinkable. At a mere 5.3, Fuller's Old Winter Ale is more soothing, with nutty, vanilla-like, malt notes.

One of the fruitiest and most expressive of barley wines is Elizabethan, at 8.0-plus, from Harvey's, of Lewes, Sussex. Next door in Hampshire, the Gale's brewery has its famous Prize Old Ale, at 9.0 per cent, with the fruitiness and warmth of a Calvados. This is a notable example of a beer that will develop in the bottle. So is Thomas Hardy's Ale, at 12 per cent, from Eldridge Pope, of Dorchester. The latter, though, seems to have lost some of its meatiness since a change in ownership of the brewery.

When endless wars with the French cut wine supplies during the 1700s, Dorchester strong ales became famous in many parts of England as an alternative. In those days, every town had its own distinct style of beer.

For many decades of the present century, the barley wine best known nationally was Bass No 1, made in England's brewing capital, Burton-upon-Trent. Production of this brew ceased in recent years, but it has now been revived as a periodic speciality, made in Bass's museum. At 10.5, and with a chestnut colour, it is a robust, oaky, oily, hoppy potion. The paler Gold Label Barley Wine, from Whitbread, is easier to find nationally. This lively brew of 10.9, with an apricot fruitiness, is made in Lancashire.

Across the Pennines, Yorkshire was famous for strong ales under the stylistic term Stingo. A distant descendant of that style might be Old Peculier, at a modest 5.7 per cent. Samuel Smith's paler Winter Welcome is marginally stronger, at 6.0, and much winier. Farther north, the Sunderland brewery, Vaux, has a grainer, sweet, honeyish, Winter Warmer at 6.5. This was one of the finalists in a blindfold tasting run recently by Tesco and judged by beer-writers.

The winner, McEwan's No 1 Champion Ale, at 7.3, tastes like a fruit-filled chocolate praline. And Tesco tells me that this richly characterful Scottish ale has proven "a real commercial success"

White wine of the week

1997 Haute Provence Semillon Reserve, Franschhoek, pounds 6.49, Oddbins. The Semillon grape may not be South Africa's strongest suit, but judging by this mouthwatering fruity version, perhaps more of the stuff should be planted there. It's a subtly oaked, crisply understated dry white whose tightly bound, Graves-like youthful fruit is refreshingly zingy and beautifully balanced. The tangy, citrusy knife-blade of acidity on the finish makes it the perfect mate for fish or cheese.

Red wine of the week

1994 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet/Shiraz, South Australia, pounds 11.95, Safeway (85 stores). 1994 was an excellent vintage in Australia for reds, but big wines like the Bin 389, inappropriately nicknamed "poor man's Grange Hermitage" (Grange is Shiraz-based), need time for the new oak to integrate and the tannins to soften. There's a 10-year life ahead if you want to give it cellar-space, but the sweetly smoky oak aromas and richly concentrated cassis flavours are already blending into an irresistibly succulent mouthful of fruit Anthony Rose