Anyone who can appreciate things nostalgic need not yearn wistfully when it comes to beer, as today’s brewers are as hip to historical brews as they are to the trendy. That considered, perhaps we are ready to rediscover old ales, largely disregarded over the past 30 years. Old ales are so designated for several reasons: prolonged aging, old brewing methods and recipes, and historical reverence. Though complexity via maturation is requisite for modern offerings, they were once designed to add aged character to younger ales by blending. The line between sibling styles old ale and barley wine is blurry at times. Old ales tend to be darker, sweeter, and hopped in more reserved fashion than barley wines. Others are nothing more than strong versions of mild (the subset known as “winter warmers” may be the best example of this). The style is wide ranging, but that is a blessing in that each brew can express its own unique personality without a stylistic straightjacket. In reality, old ales are a living composite of antiquated British beer archetypes, a modern package with classical allusions.
Real Old Ale
We can only surmise what beer must have tasted like before the use of bittering, antiseptic hops. Quickly-fermenting brews that allowed minimal time for nefarious organisms to overwhelm the batch were no doubt common. The marriage of hops and beer in continental Europe a thousand years ago and in England by the sixteenth century was an enlightenment: hopped ales were protected against microbial corruption, and could be kept for long periods of time without compromise.
Within decades of this epiphany, English brewers were making ales of several strengths. Able to withstand prolonged storage, strong ale developed complex characteristics from assorted organisms inhabiting the aging barrels. Aging itself lent some oxidative and vinous qualities to the beer, and residual brewing yeast added another dimension by metabolizing any leftover sugars. Most importantly though, cask-resident Brettanomyces yeast contributed mightily to the desired character with the musty, leathery and barnyard notes synonymous with kept ales, those that had seen a minimum of a year in the cask. Additionally, they were mashed to be under-attenuated and sweeter, perhaps to offer more substrate for the Brett and the acidifying bacteria, Lactobacillus.
They were variously known as old, stock, strong, or stale ale, with stale being interpreted as “stood” and not something undesirable. One key to keeping stock ale was serving it while it still had that delicious depth of mature character, but before it became excessively sour or acidic. Brewing operations were often suspended from late spring through early autumn to shield the fermenting beer from the ubiquitous airborne contaminants during the warm months and to eliminate any possibility of unpleasant byproducts of high temperature fermentation.
Any ale brewed at the end of the spring season could be consumed fresh, or it could be blended with stock ale to roughen the profile and give it that aged impression. Stock ale that was leftover when the brewing season resumed in fall was consumed as “old ale,” completing the cycle. The practice of blending was common practice during the rise of British brewing in the first half of the eighteenth century, and vital in the saga of porter.
New Old Ale
Due in large part to the advancements made in malt production and a keener understanding of brewing science and recipe formulation, blending became less common in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. “Old ale” came into use more, as stock and stale were no longer needed to describe their condition.
Many strong ales lived on, and newly developed styles such as Imperial stout and Baltic porter were brewed specifically for export. Barley wine, old ale, Yorkshire stingo and Burton ale carried on this tradition on the home front, and all were designed with aging in mind. All of these brews were quite similar, but old ale may be a direct descendent of the darker Burton ale, while barley wine emerged in recent times as slightly stronger and lighter in color, with more attenuation.
Burton ale is of particular interest as an intermediate style in the evolution of modern old ale. Burton-upon-Trent had a rich brewing heritage for hundreds of years before their IPA gained acclaim in the 1700s. During the heyday, both IPA and outstanding strong, sweeter ales were brewed. They contained a small amount of “high-dried” or roasted barley, and were dry hopped prior to aging. The style endured simply as Burton Ale, even into the twentieth century. Sometimes they were called old ale, and blended with mild.
More evidence of their popularity lies in the fact that they were the preferred Baltic export from Burton, and that many brewers across England made them, keeping “Burton” attached to identify the character. Burton ales were widely popular through the nineteenth century, at time when beer styles began to distinguish themselves, and even as pale lager gained a strong foothold throughout Europe.
The first half of the twentieth century saw something of a downturn in the popularity of strong ales, primarily due to wartime taxation and scarcity of raw materials. But the tags old ale, barley wine and Burton ale could be found on many labels, even though collectively they would remain rather similar beers. A surge in popularity occurred again after World War II for a few years as some degree of prosperity and nostalgia returned, but it waned again until the 1970s and 80s, when the current revolution gained momentum. Since then, old ale and barley wine have separated themselves for the most part from historical strong ale, and are now again a significant feature on the beer landscape.
As mentioned earlier, old ales cover a rather broad set of descriptors, sometimes overlapping with barley wines in character, and at others, sliding down to more modest proportions as seasonal winter warmers. This allows for unique stylistic interpretations among brewers.
The classics are deep amber to mahogany in color. They range from 5.6 to 9 percent in general, but exceed that on either end. The grist is in great measure premium English pale ale malt, mashed to increase residuals and decrease fermentability. Character malts include various shades of caramel, perhaps some chocolate or black, and occasionally some adjunct grain or brewing sugar. Often kettle time is dramatically increased to add intense caramelization and deeper, red-tinted color. This tried and true combination of composition and method imparts notes of treacle, molasses, and raisin or prune, with hints of nuts, chocolate or roast, all over a malty and dextrinous background.
Estery yeast is best employed to supply fruity notes that play well with aging. Classic English East Kent Goldings and Fuggles hops are most likely used, at reserved levels.
Though today’s old ales may lack the Brettanomyces and lactic acid character that defined them in bygone cask-matured versions, aging in itself does impart a vinous quality to those meant to keep. Barrels have largely been replaced by bottle-conditioning. Old Peculier, Fullers 1845, Harviestoun Old Engine Oil, and Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild all can acquire the sherrylike, oxidative profile if cellared, and all are manageable in strength at 5.6 to 6.3 percent ABV. They are, without a doubt, firmly in the old ale style.
More formidable are Gale’s Prize Old Ale, Fuller’s Vintage Ale, Frederic Robinson’s Old Tom, J. W. Lee’s Moonraker, and Kuhnhenn Fourth Dementia. All have intense winey notes, can be kept for multiple years, and require a seasoned palate to fully grasp.
Those that straddle the old ale/barley wine fence have a subdued hop character relative to most barely wines and are worth including in the discussion. They are most suited for prolonged cellaring and contemplative vertical tasting comparison, and include Eldridge Pope Thomas Hardy’s Ale (11.9%), J. W. Lees Vintage Harvest Ale (11.5%), North Coast Brewing Old Stock Ale (12.5%), and Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale (10.2%). Years of aging only make these better. They are surprisingly simplistic in their makeup, generally using only pale malt and protracted boiling times to achieve powerfully concentrated flavors and ruby highlights in the color. Reminiscent of port wine and sherry, they also take on the auxiliary whispers of multi-organism maturation, with a tart and earthy edge. All examples exhibit an engagement of familiar ale and novel age character that untangle seamlessly. Harvest and Hardy’s ales could easily be put squarely in the English barley wine camp.
Seasonal winter warmers, like Sam Smith’s Winter Welcome, St. Peter’s Winter Ale and Young’s Winter Warmer are best enjoyed within several months of release. They are malty and have a fresher hop nose than more burly old ales. American breweries also tender winter seasonals in this vein.
The future for old ales and their ilk looks promising as vintaging and barreling is taking on a new level of appreciation, and brewers are looking eagerly to fill these niches. Even some of those listed above are either relatively new or recently revived to accommodate the emerging market. Take comfort in an old ale.
Theakston’s Old PeculierABV: 5.6
Tasting Notes: Billed as the ale that made Masham, North Yorkshire famous, Old Peculier is widely considered the yardstick by which other old ales are measured. Deep brown and lacy in the glass, the nose has toffee, molasses, and some sweet sherry. The texture is rather dense, the flavor is a playful volley of sweet caramel and dark fruit versus soft oxidative and acidic winey notes. The finish is both sweet and dry, complex yet easy and tight. Expertly brewed, this classic never gets old, so to speak.
Gale’s Prize Old Ale 2006ABV: 9.0
Tasting Notes: Prize Old Ale is brewed in Horndean, Hampshire by George Gale and Company and is a living example of historical old ale, perhaps inspired by Yorkshire stingo. It pours with a scant, off-white head and mahogany color. Tart, winey notes with malt and raisin are found in the nose. The flavor is woody and earthy with molasses and sherry and those oxidative qualities expected in classic old ale. Gale and Co. was acquired by Fullers in 2005, and a measure of POA was rescued from old casks to ensure that the proper micoflora would be included in the future offerings. Perfect for comparing vintages, as it is bottle-conditioned.
Harviestoun Old Engine OilABV: 8.0
Tasting Notes: Though based in Alva, Scotland, Harviestoun leans towards producing ales squarely in the English camp. OEO pours black with red tints and a firm, fleeting tan head. The nose offers the faintest hint of coffee, with more pronounced aromas of chocolate, anise and malt. Quite creamy, the flavor features dark graininess, licorice, raisin and cherry. Solid hoppiness is followed by an earthy finish. This could be enjoyed fresh or modestly aged at 6.0% ABV. A more substantial line of old ale, Ola Dubh, is aged in various whiskey barrels. A delight at 8.0% ABV.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.