Old ales bring with them a curious moniker. Are they called “old” because of an extended aging period, a nod to venerability, or because of an old method or style? In the keynote representatives of the style, it is all three.
Old ales are remnants of a period when most ales were strong and somewhat dark. Today’s versions are wide ranging. In general, however, they can be described as ales of higher than average strength that benefit greatly from some aging, are gently hopped, and that showcase a malty base. Some are seasonal brews. Aging may be the key contributor to the character of an old ale, as they can develop a complex profile with some oxidative or winey notes.
Embodying English Brewing Heritage
Old ales are perfect representatives of English brewing heritage. A few centuries ago, the brewer’s wares were designated as either “ale” or “beer,” with ale being the stronger of the two. The gravities of these historical ales were in the range of today’s strong or old ales, roughly above 1060. This is not to say, however, that the beers of England at the time were without any other distinguishing characteristics.
The development in the 18th century of brown malt, which could be used for the entire grain bill of a beer, made possible the production of a new beer style—porter. It is generally agreed that porter was made exclusively from this type of malt. Dried over a wood fire, the malt was dark and smoky, and a wort made from it would contain a lot of residual character. The beer itself would also have had a lactic and somewhat rough character as influenced by Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces strains of bacteria resident in the fermenting vessels.
What does porter have to do with old ale? The forerunners of old ale may be the last of the modern styles to utilize some of the common practices that pre-porter brewers used a century and a half before. This may also partly explain the “old ale” designation.
New beer styles defined themselves based on geography, brewer’s preferences and local supplies. Old ale was also called such because of a lingering preference for aged beer, even though by the late 19th century, the brewer’s craft had been refined enough to ensure a constant supply of clean, fresh beer. Still, it wasn’t uncommon for some breweries to shut down during the summer to avoid the sketchy conditions under which they would ferment. Therefore, beers were often made in the cooler seasons and stored, something for which a stronger beer would be well suited. A fresher strong ale versus an aged one would be quite different in character because of the presence of the aforementioned organisms in the aging vessels. Some of these strong ales were aged for up to a year before being served. In fact, the British expected some unusual character in their strong beer.
To ensure a steady supply of this type of characterful beer, brewers kept a few casks of well-aged beer, known as “stock ale,” handy to blend with fresh product. When the brewing seasons and cycles came full circle, these stock ales would be released as old ale.
Another characteristic of traditional old ale from the late 19th century was that it was not attenuated very much, resulting in a somewhat sweetish brew. These beers could be made even more full bodied by utilizing dextrin-producing high mash temperatures. This helped to distinguish old ales from the other popular brews of the day, like pale ale, porter and stout, which were a bit drier.
Familiar Old Ales
The best modern examples of old ale can claim many of the characteristics of their ancestors. They are usually dark in color, fairly strong, somewhat sweet, fruity, quite dextrinous, with a reserved hop character and some exquisite nuances developed through aging. There are outliers on either end of the category, with the smaller ones resembling strong milds, and the big ones being reminiscent of English barley wine. Some are called winter warmers, and most have a descriptive moniker, such as “old” or “winter” on their label. They are typically 6 to 9 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).
The rich character of an old ale begins with a foundation of premium English pale ale malt. This well-modified malt has a bit more inherent robust character than the pale malts used for lagers. Some old ales are amber in hue, in which case the pale malt may be augmented for color and body with a measure of crystal malt. The darker examples use a more complex grain bill and incorporate some crystal malt as well as small amounts of darker varieties such as chocolate, black, or roast.
Old ales have the typically fruity ale nose, and the grain bill has some influence over the estery components of aroma. Amber old ales are reminiscent of lighter aromatics like peach, apricot or vanilla, while the dark versions present raisin, molasses, toffee or even prunes.
As old ales are brewed to have a plump profile, a dextrinous, full-bodied consistency is in order. Because of the higher-than-average gravity, the wort of an old ale has a more concentrated malt character. The smooth, lightly viscous mouthfeel is also a function of the aforementioned elevated mash temperature and the use of body-building specialty malts. The impression of the sweet malt profile is further amplified by employing kettle and aroma hops in rather reserved fashion. The hop bitterness, and especially the hop aroma, may be further diminished by aging. In order to ensure that the beer doesn’t dry out extensively, and hence retains its full profile, a low-attenuating yeast is utilized. One that produces a variety of estery aromas might also be selected, adding greatly to the complexity of a well-made old ale.
Aging is critical to the old ale profile. Many are described as being vinous, even sherry-like, and possessing some oxidative notes. Many strong beers develop these characteristics over time if stored properly, and old ales lend themselves especially well to this practice. The estery aromas of the young beer metamorphose into the winey notes of a kept beer. The stronger dark varieties, like Gales Prize Old Ale, are perfect examples of the resultant transformation. An interesting paradox of old ales is the dryish thread that runs through them. This is due to the tempering effect of aging on the original sweet brew.
Winter Warmers, Old Ale, Stock Ale, and Barley Wine
The annual release of strong ales by Samuel Smith’s and Young’s breweries is a nod to the tradition of making a seasonal winter beer. Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome is an amber-colored winter warmer that relies heavily on the rich quality of English pale malt. While its strength, at about 6 percent ABV, fits the bill for an old ale, its light color is a bit unusual for the style. It lacks the dark malt character of some of the others, but makes up for it with a clean, rich, malty backbone and the signature complexity found in all of Samuel Smith’s brews. Young’s Winter Warmer is a reddish-brown seasonal that measures just 5 percent ABV. It has some dark fruit esters and a malty chocolate aroma. It is exceptionally smooth.
Burton Bridge Old Expensive Ale (6.5 percent ABV), and J. W. Lees Moonraker (7.5 percent ABV) are reasonably strong, deep amber in color, and fit nicely into the old ale mold.
Eldridge Pope Thomas Hardy’s Ale, at 12 percent ABV, goes well beyond the range of “ordinary” old ales. Many would consider it a barley wine, though the brewery doesn’t designate it as such. Recent vintages will be mellow and soft, but older vintages develop some dryness and vinous character. In the United States, North Coast Old Stock Ale and Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale are huge beers whose names pay homage to brewing traditions. They, like Thomas Hardy’s, could also be considered either barley wine or old ale, but all seem to be hopped somewhat less than more traditional barley wines.
There are several old ales that compose a neat, fairly well-defined family of beers. They are brewed throughout the year and may be aged before release, though they might not improve significantly over the long haul. They carry enough of a swagger, at 5.6 percent to 9 percent ABV, to provide a soothing touch to a winter evening without being overwhelming. Theakston’s Old Peculier is the benchmark of these brews, with Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby, Frederic Robinson’s Old Tom, Marston’s Owd Rodger, and Gale’s Prize Old Ale being the others of note. They are best enjoyed at cellar temperatures, in the mid-50 degrees F.
Frederic Robinson Ltd. Old TomABV: 8.5
Tasting Notes: Brewed by the Robinson family at the Unicorn Brewery in Stockport, England, since 1899. The Robinsons have been in business since 1828. Rich mahogany in color; nose of malt, molasses, chocolate, fruit and minerals. Smooth and opulent flavor, but not at all cloying, even a little dry. One of the most drinkable strong beers you’ll find anywhere. The original recipe in the brewer’s notebook was illustrated with a cat’s face. The cat on the label appears to be winking, perhaps in demure reference to the contents.
Theakston’s Old PeculierABV: 5.7
Tasting Notes: Considered the benchmark beer of the style; brewed in Masham, England, and touted as a “traditional Yorkshire ale.” Some buttery molasses in the nose, with some mellow port wine notes, and an overall captivating aroma. The chocolate and sweet caramel character shines through in the taste. Dryish, with some aged, oxidative and winey flavor. Easy drinking and satisfying.
J. W. Lees MoonrakerABV: 7.5
Tasting Notes: Brewed by J. W. Lees & Co. Ltd., which has been brewing since 1828 in Middleton, Manchester, England, and is now in its sixth generation of family brewers. Moonraker was once named the CAMRA champion winter ale. Tawny in color, with a caramel malt aroma that has a pleasant aged, vinous appeal. It pours slightly hazy because of bottle conditioning. The flavor revisits the rich caramel aroma, and a soft bitterness balances the brew. An excellent winter warmer at 7.5% ABV.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is a research analyst at Duke University in Durham, NC, and an award-winning homebrewer.