According to the BJCP style guidelines, an English Barleywine is:
The richest and strongest of the English Ales. A showcase of malty richness and complex, intense flavors. The character of these ales can change significantly over time; both young and old versions should be appreciated for what they are. The malt profile can vary widely; not all examples will have all possible flavors or aromas.
Usually the strongest ale offered by a brewery, and in recent years many commercial examples are now vintage-dated. Normally aged significantly prior to release. Often associated with the winter or holiday season.
I started this batch back in November, with Belgian toasted malts (Dingemans Special B and Biscuit) and Target, Cascade and Fuffgle hops. The starting specific gravity (O.G.) was 1.112, which is one seriously heavy wort.
The previous day I had made a yeast starter, building a Wyeast #1056 American Ale 125ml “smack pack” into a 600ml starter (650 ml water 3/4 cup DME boiled for 15 minutes). For high gravity beers this is essential in order to get the fermentation off to a fast start.
After 2 1/2 weeks, the fermentation slowed enough to rack into a carboy where it sat for another month. Today I finally had a chance to bottle this, yielding 11 liters of barleywine. Final gravity was 1.034 giving an estimated ABV of 10.3%, a potent brew indeed. By way of reference, Budweiser is 5%.
An initial taste indicated that it was nicely balanced and hid the high alcohol levels behind the maltiness with forward hints of licorice, vanilla and plum. I will let it bottle condition for another 6-months or so before trying again. This will be a beer to sip and enjoy for several years.
Note that no licorice, vanilla, or plum was ever added to this beer. It is pure beer, according to the German Reinheitsgebot — nothing but water, malted barley, hops and yeast. The rest is the magic of biochemistry, the enzymes released during the malting of the barley that convert the starches into sugar, the carmelization of these sugars during the roasting of the barley, the alcohols and esters produced by the fermenting of the yeast. Even after the yeast has done its work and settled out, the beer will continue to evolve and change over time. Compare the complexity of a serious, living beer like this to the mass-produced, always-the-same pale lagers that fill the store shelves, and you will never go back.