Photo: Courtesy of Mad Fox Brewing

Barley Wine Season

Everyone has a favorite way of keeping warm this time of year – sitting by the fireplace, cozying up next to a favorite furry friend, or crawling under the covers and cranking up the space heater. When out on the town, though, it’s often most convenient to warm your innards with something in the form of liquid.

Enter barley wine.

“Most people’s palates tend to gravitate toward darker, richer beers and drinks,” says Bill Madden, chief executive officer and executive brewer at Mad Fox Brewing Company in Falls Church. “Barley wine is a super-strength beer, created back in the day when kings and queens of the royalty in the UK were looking for a replacement product for their wine.”

Madden adds that barley wine is roughly the same strength as wine, which tends to be 11 to 15 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). British-style barley wines run from about seven to nine percent ABV, whereas a midrange, American-style barley wine is typically 10 to 12 percent.

Mad Fox’s Slobberknocker will be one of 35 barley wines served at the brewery’s barley wine festival, the largest of its kind in the Mid-Atlantic, at the Falls Church location on February 24-25.

“We’ve been doing [the festival] for the last eight years,” Madden says, pointing out that there is no entrance fee for the festivities.

“It’s a packed house. The goal for the aficionado is to make it through the day. We usually have two sessions, [and] at a minimum, we’ll have 16 barley wines at each session. Everybody tries to sample them, so they’ll be sharing samples with their friends and trying to get through all of them in one sitting.”

Madden says people are pretty happy after the first session, adding, “You can guess why.”

Lovers of the local beer scene should be especially happy about the brands on the festival taps; Madden worked his magic on some local brewers who agreed to serve some of their barley wines. For example, Mad Fox will be the only spot outside of DC Brau where locals can try the craft brewery’s Sleeping Standing Up, according to co-owner Jeff Hancock.

“Every year since our inception, [Madden’s] been asking me to brew a barley wine more or less specifically for the fest,” Hancock says. “We’re going to give [Mad Fox] our first couple of sixtels of barley wine.”

Hancock explains that he and his brewers riffed off the first version of the English-style barley wine, and decided to reduced the roast character a little to get the flavor profile more try to style.

“We had a strong beer sitting around that we definitely weren’t going to get rid of by any stretch of the imagination,” he continues. “We just figured out a way to get creative with it.”

And thus the 2017 Holiday Ale was born. The festival offers a great way for beermakers like Hancock and Madden to come together. Charlie Buettner, now head brewer at Fair Winds Brewing Company in Lorton, used to work with Madden at Mad Fox; he even helped organize its first barley wine festival back in 2011.

This year, Buettner will make Fair Winds’ presence felt by supplying the festival with the brewery’s All Hands Anniversary Ale. Fair Winds makes its Anniversary Ale available in-house every March, and select barrels occasionally surface at bars like Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights and Crafthouse in Ballston.

“We maintain a thing called ‘Beer Finder’ on our website,” Buettner says. “We keep all of our customers and fans up-to-date on all the places that carry our product, and update that on a monthly basis.”

Buettner says he’s noticed a growing demand for barley wine as more people have become craft beer consumers, and agrees that high alcohol content is a major reason for barley wine’s winter popularity. He also credits its rich malt characters, such as the caramel flavors that Buettner incorporates in Fair Winds’ barley wine, which help mask its super potent nature.

“[It’s] definitely the season for [barley wine],” agrees Pizzeria Paradiso Executive Beverage Director Drew McCormick. “You feel it warm you from the inside out.”

Pizzeria Paradiso held a barley wine festival over President’s Day weekend last year, serving up 15 different barley wines between all of its locations.

Although the festival is on hold this year, McCormick says all locations are planning to serve J.W. Lees barley wines. Other potential 2018 barley wine appearances include Flying Dog Brewery’s Horn Dog, Firestone Walker’s Helldorado and Bell’s Wheat Love.

Barley wine abounds in DC and Northern Virginia this winter; with pipes freezing and bursting left and right, it could be worthwhile to coat your own with these local options.

Mad Fox’s barley wine festival runs Saturday, February 24 and Sunday, February 25 with free admission both days. Learn more at

Mad Fox Brewing Company: 444 West Broad St. Suite I, Falls Church, VA; 703-942-6840;

Joel Goldberg

Joel Goldberg is a proud Philadelphia area native, and has lived in DC off and on since starting college at George Washington University in 2008. In addition to reporting for outlets such as NPR and National Geographic Magazine, he has dabbled in literary and science fiction. He has performed readings at fellow On Tap writer Courtney Sexton's The Inner Loop, a literary series in DC. His work seeks to emphasize the human element of storytelling by examining people's behaviors, personalities, experiences and beliefs. Personally, he believes that his love for dogs and neglected 90s rock is unmatched.