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.