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.
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.
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.