Old Ale is a type of strong ale with a rich heritage rooted in English brewing. You’ll often find these beers to be dark and malty, with an alcohol content above 5% ABV. In Australia, Old Ale refers to dark ales of any strength, while in England, it’s more specific to stronger varieties.
As you delve into the world of Old Ales, you may come across other names like “stock ale” or “keeping ale.” These terms hint at the beer’s history, as they were often matured in vats at the brewery for extended periods. The result is a full-bodied malt character with unique flavors that come from aging.
Old Ale Characteristics
Old Ales are known for their rich and complex flavor profiles. You’ll often taste notes of toffee, caramel, molasses, and even chocolate. The presence of fruity esters enhances these flavors, adding nuances of raisins, nuts, and sometimes tart notes from the use of Brettanomyces.
Aroma and Appearance
The aroma of an Old Ale is typically quite inviting, featuring caramel, toffee, and hints of roast and nuts. Don’t be surprised if you also pick up some vinous and fruity notes, like raisins and other dark fruits. Visually, Old Ales range from deep amber to dark brown in color, with a moderate to low head retention. The rich and full-bodied palate makes for a satisfying sip every time.
Brewing and Aging Process
Ingredients and Brewing
When brewing an Old Ale, you’ll start with a variety of grains, including some specialty malts to give it that rich and complex flavor. You’ll balance the malt profile with hops, typically aiming for a moderate IBU to ensure the beer isn’t too bitter. Don’t be surprised if your original gravity is high, as this style has a higher alcohol content, usually between 6% and 8.5%.
For fermentation, you’ll use a yeast strain that produces fruity esters and can tolerate the higher alcohol levels. Make sure to monitor the mash temperature carefully, as it can impact the overall profile of the beer. London-style Old Ales may require a more specific yeast strain and fermentation process.
Aging and Conditioning
Proper aging is essential when it comes to Old Ales. As the name suggests, this beer style often undergoes an extended aging process, sometimes for years. This can occur on the yeast, in bulk storage, or through bottle conditioning. The long aging process contributes to a rich, wine-like, and often sweet oxidized character.
During aging, various factors may come into play, such as blending, bacteria, and oxidation. Blending Old Ales with younger beers is a traditional practice, resulting in a more complex flavor profile. Introducing bacteria, such as lactic acid-producing strains, can add a touch of funk, making the final product even more interesting. Keep in mind that your final gravity may change as your ale ages and experiences these transformations.
A well-aged Old Ale can resemble a barley wine in some aspects, but remember that each beer style has its distinctions. So, take your time and focus on the details to create an exceptional Old Ale worth savoring.
Old Ale in Historical and Brewing Context
In the past, before the Industrial Revolution, cooling beer for long periods was a challenge. As a result, Old Ales emerged as a brew that stored well due to their high alcohol content. This strong, dark beer was quite popular in England during the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was often brewed in winter.
Variations and Contemporary Status
Nowadays, Old Ales go by many names such as winter warmers, stock ales, or even keeping ales. Some may even share characteristics with barleywines. Here’s a breakdown of the key features in Old Ales:
- Complexity: As they age, Old Ales develop a rich and complex flavor profile, often accompanied by notes of dark fruit and caramel.
- Bitterness: Unlike contemporary hoppy beers, these ales have a mellower bitterness level, well balanced with their malty sweetness.
- Recipe and process: Old Ales have high malt proportions and low hop usage, leading to their unique taste. They may even have sour notes from Lactobacillus bacteria present during aging.
- Alcohol by Volume (ABV): Typically ranging from 6% to 10%, Old Ales are known for their high alcohol content.
Some famous examples include Old Peculier and Burton Ale. Although not as popular as they once were, Old Ales still hold a special place among beer enthusiasts seeking a unique taste and historical perspective on brewing. So next time you come across an Old Ale, remember the rich history behind this remarkable beer style.