Oh boy, where to begin…While “Old Ale” is indeed a specific beer style, there are various interpretations and theories about what the style actually is and where it originated. Some say its origins are tied to “Stock Ales”, an aged sharper, stronger version of a Mild Ale. Barkeeps in the 1800s are said to have added portions of strong “Old Ale” to a fresh Mild Ale, creating a hybrid custom-tailored ale to the customer’s liking. Another theory, keeping more in line with modern brewing, claim that the style is created by adding aged ale (with living yeast) to a Stock Ale in the secondary fermentation. The result is a full (not heavy) body. It’s a stronger, darker, somewhat fruity, tarter, and sometimes slightly more acidic and/or sour ale. The smell and distant taste of green hard wood is not uncommon to the style.
Many Old Ales today, are barrel-aged in Scotch or other hard liquor wooden vessels. The alcohol by volume (ABV) levels varies greatly within the Old Ale style range (from 4% - 13% ABV). In recent years some brewers have taken liberty with the style’s name and have created super strong ales that probably are more related to Barley Wines or American or English Strong Ales. Some might argue there is no difference between a Barley Wine and an Old Ale, and they would be wrong. The part about adding a living aged ale to a Stock Ale in the fermentation gives it its unique style.
This week we’ll try to focus on winter-warming ales of 5.7% ABV and up that have maintained the basic Old Ale characteristics listed above.
From the land of origin
Theakston Old Peculiar – TR Theakston LTD – Yorkshire, England – 5.7% ABV
Served in a nonic tumbler. This root beer colored beauty maintains a full beige head and a bit of trailing lace. The aroma is malty and tea-like. The rich malt has a caramel sweetness. Sharp citrus bitterness and tea-like hops are in abundance. The rich independent flavors begin the meld towards the end of the glass. Creamy and nearly oily, this brew goes down with a nice velvety smoothness.
Fuller Vintage Ale – Fuller, Smith and Turner PLC – London, England – 8.5% ABV
I drank the 2010 over the holidays last year and swore to myself I would wait a full year until popping this one open...oh well. It pours a lovely orange-tinted amber with a small but lasting beige head on top and small trails of sticky lace.
Creamy caramel, hops, cut hay and a near perfect rummy alcohol aroma lasts a fair amount of time.
The full and rich malt body has flavors of toffee and rum cake. The hops are in abundance! Citrus and tea-like bitterness are quite noticeable. A slight metallic background adds a welcome additional edginess. The warming alcohol is in total harmony.
The mouthfeel has an almost perfect extra virgin olive oil and buttery finish to it.
It's velvety smooth, with a decadent richness one comes to associate and compare to a fine sherry.
Gale’s Prize Old Ale – George Gale & Co. LTD – Hampshire, England – 9% ABV
2005 This one pours a muddy old leather color with just a few medium-sized bubbles floating on top. No lace.
A sherry-like aroma is noticed as it’s being poured. A sweet malt and light alcohol smell follows. Just a faint smell of spent motor oil (is it my imagination?) can be detected with some concentration. A light smell and taste of maple syrup emerges.
A fairly sweet malt body releases tastes of pears, figs, brown bread, and again, sherry. A faint woody aroma lasts throughout.
A mild lemony bitterness and a taste of strong tea come together quite nicely. A taste of wild tart berries peek through as it warms, as does a dose a caramel sweetness.
I feel this brew may be a year or two past its prime as I’m finding the structure of the body seems to be wearing down. A somewhat salty flavor begins to intrude and the flavors and tastes are separating instead of blending harmoniously. This is probably the classic representation of all Old Ales.
West Coast Classic
Old Stock Ale – North Coast Brewing – Fort Bragg, California – 11.7% ABV
My, my this is a potent brew!
It pours an old, worn leathery brown with a thin beige head. A sweet toffee aroma and big warming alcohol fuminess is quite noticeable throughout the glass. A light citrus and mild coffee aroma are also constantly in the background. Pronounced toffee, coffee with cream and milk chocolate blend nicely with grapefruit and lemon zest bitterness. Flavors of pear brandy and a peppery spiciness mingle within the woody alcoholic and creamy bodied compound. This is a beautifully crafted beer in the "extreme" class.
Ipswich Winter Ale – Mercury Brewing Co. Ipswich, Massachusetts – 6.2% ABV
It pours a cloudy honey amber with a fast fading off-white head. A big whiff of fresh hops followed by sweet malt fades in a matter of seconds. Not as malty as many winter brews, but slightly maltier than pale ales. Lightly sweet caramel and biscuity. Highly hopped with a sharp, edged citrus bitterness and slight metallic bite. A lightly fruity and orange zest taste is revealed as the glass warms. A touch of warming alcohol finishes.
Mayflower Thanksgiving Ale – Mayflower Brewing – Plymouth, Massachusetts
Served in a nonic tumbler at BBC Pembroke.
Pours an orange-hued walnut color with a firm 1" beige head, along with loads of lacing.
Smells of sour dough and rye bread blend with a deep aroma of dried malt. Citrusy and resinous hops follow, as does some spruce notes. A light warming rum alcohol fuminess pulls through.
The flavors mirror the aromas in every way. Flavors of fruit cup soaked in vodka come to mind. A mild sour tartness inches through in the background.
This reminds me of Fuller's Vintage Ale, one of my favorite Old Ales. A side by side tasting will be interesting.
Ola Dubh Special Reserve 16 – Harviestoun Brewery – Alva, Scotland – 8% ABV
Good Old Ales go very well with strong cheeses, hard salamis, a low-flamed fireplace and happily sleeping pet…or wife at your side.
Quote: “For a quart of ale is a dish for a king" - William Shakespeare ‘A Winter’s Tale’