Nick Carr on November 21, 2014 1 Comment History of Old Ale Before the Industrial Revolution, a lack of ways to keep beer cool for a long period of time, may have been the starting point of the creation of “old ale.” Low alcohol, highly attenuated beers did not store well without cooling, but sweet high alcohol beer did. These stored ales took on a much more complex character then the “young ales.” Stored in oak barrels they developed astringency from tannins; a funky and tart character from bacteria like brettanomyces; throw in a bit of oxidation for good measure and come out with a highly complex set of characters. A common practice was to blend green “young beer” with some portion of this old beer to arrive at a complex, woody middle ground. This practice may have been adopted as brewers drifted away from storing beer for long periods of time, instead looking more to a quick return on profit. The idea of blending the old with the new allowed them to “age” smaller quantities of beer, have drinkable beer much sooner, while still remaining somewhat true to the flavor of the “Old Ales.” Brewing with minimal temperature control also meant there was a brewing “season.” Often, brewing would cease during the warmer months to try and avoid the problems associated with warm fermentation, such as bacteria. Beer brewed at the end of the season (late spring) could be consumed as “fresh,” or mild beer, or be blended with last season’s ale to create higher complexity. Any beer left over at the start of the next brewing season would be considered stock, keeping, stale, or strong ales (all synonyms for the “old” moniker). There is some confusion today on how the Old Ale and Barleywine styles differ. In truth, this is a hard nut to crack. The similarities are pronounced, and at the fringes of the guidelines these styles do meld into each other. Generally speaking, Old Ales will fall below where most Barleywines start on the ABV scale. They also usually have less of a hop presence then Barleywines. It must be remembered, though, that these are not hard and fast rules. There are examples on both sides that buck even these generalities. It seems these confusions could be easily remedied by setting the defining characteristic between the two as the lactic or brettanomyces character found in the original Old Ales, but missing from many modern examples. But that, of course, is just this one writer’s opinion. Style Profile & Characteristics The guidelines for the Old Ale beer style are set by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Committee. The below details are a summary of what an Old Ale should represent. Quick Characteristics Color Range: 10–22 SRM Original Gravity: 1.060–1.090 Final Gravity: 1.015–1.022 IBU Range: 30–60 ABV Range: 6.0–9.0% Aroma: Noticeably Malty & Sweet; Hints of Fruity Esters; May Have Notes of Caramel, Dried Fruit, Toffee, Nut or Molasses; Little-to-Zero Hoppiness Flavor: Complex Maltiness; Hints of Caramel, Molasses & Nut; Possible Notes of Chocolate & Roast; Noticeable Bite of Alcohol Appearance: Ranges from Light Amber to Dark Reddish-Brown; Head Will Range From Cream to Light Tan Mouthfeel: Heavy/Chewy Body; Medium to Full Mouthfeel with Little Carbonation Food Pairings: Honey-Baked Ham, Pork Chops, Porterhouse Steak, Roasted Lamb, Shepherd’s Pie, Bread Pudding The BJCP classifies the Old Ale under category number 17, “Strong British Ale” and it can be found in the guidelines as sub-category (17B). Other beer styles under this category include: British Strong Ale (17B), Wee Heavy (17C), and English Barleywine (17D). Appearance: Because age is a part of this style’s brewing process, its characteristics are wide-ranging. Aging along with oxidation can significantly darken the color of beer, and in this case can run from a light amber into a much darker reddish-brown. If aged long it may appear opaque, but can also be quiet clear. The head should be cream to light tan color and will most likely be small and quick to disappear (another effect of aging and oxidation). Aroma: Aroma should be noticeably malty, sweet, with hints of fruity esters. Dried fruit, caramel, nut, toffee, alcohol, and molasses are all common and create a nose of high complexity. Oxidative notes may also be present. The ageing process will eliminate all, or much of the hop aroma. Mouthfeel: Old ales tend toward low to mid-carbonation depending on age and conditioning. They can be heavy on the palate, almost chewy, though not necessarily so. Alcohol warmth should be noticeable in most examples. Taste: Taste should let malt complexity and character shine; with possible molasses-like, nutty, and caramelly complexities. Fruit esters may be present and create a vinous quality. Chocolate and roasty characters may be present but should keep a relatively low profile. Alcohol should be noticeable but not overwhelming and examples also have the possibility of showcasing some tart notes, depending on if brettanomyces took part in the aging process. Examples of the Style Mule Kick from City Star Brewing, CO Great American Beer Festival Winner 2013 Papier from The Bruery Great American Beer Festival Winner 2012. Special release. AleSmith Olde Ale from Ale Smith Brewing World Beer Cup Winner 2014. Spring release. Fuller’s Vintage Ale from Fuller’s Brewing, UK Hard to come by. Founder’s Curmudgeon from Founder’s Brewery, MI Seasonal Specialty Available April – June. Winter’s Welcome from Samuel Smith’s Brewing, UK winter seasonal Old Peculiar from Theakston Brewing, UK Year Round Pinoyed / Flickr 10 Tips For Brewing Your Own Old Ale The bulk of an Old Ale recipe should be made up of a well-modified pale malt, or if you’re not all-grain brewing yet a pale malt extract is easily substituted as a base. Darker crystal malts can be added at around 10% to 20% of the grain bill to add mouthfeel and maltiness. Small amounts of roast and chocolate malts may be added for color and complexity, but use a light hand when adding these to a recipe. Adjuncts such as molasses, dark sugar, treacle, maze, and flaked barley are common in this style. No matter which or how many you decide to use keep the adjunct total below about 10% of your total grain bill. The darker sugars may add a somewhat rum-like note to the beer, which can be quiet pleasant. Mash temperature should be at relatively high, around 154°F to 156°F. Remember our interest is malt character. Hop variety isn’t overly important with this style of beer because the aging process will subdue and change the hop character. Generally a mild hop is used for both bittering and aroma. English Fuggles is a good example. Any low attenuating ale yeast with a fruity ester profile will do you, though for authenticities sake you may go with some kind of British ale yeast. Ferment at between 65°F to 70°F, though don’t fret to much about climbing a bit above this spectrum. There are many good sources of old ale recipes on the internet, find one and give it a shot as is, or play around a bit and put your own spin on it. Either way, unless you do something truly out of the guidelines it is likely you will end up with a nice drinkable beer. Cheers!