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Old Ale

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Old Ale, also known as Stock Ale or Keeping Ale, is a style of English beer, often of high original gravity, featuring complex flavors produced by long aging, often in wood. This style was also traditionally known in England as Strong Ale, although that term is now also used both to refer to a separate style of unaged beer as well as a generic term for Imperial beer styles and other strong beer styles.

Old Ales, contrary to expectation, do not have to be especially strong: they can be no more than 4% alcohol, though the Gale’s and O’Hanlon’s versions are considerably stronger. Neither do they have to be dark: Old Ale can be pale and burst with lush sappy malt, tart fruit and spicy hop notes. Darker versions will have a more profound malt character with powerful hints of roasted grain, dark fruit, polished leather and fresh tobacco. The hallmark of the style remains a lengthy period of maturation, often in bottle rather than bulk vessels. Old Ales typically range from 4% to 6.5%.

Contents

History of Old Ale

Old Ale recalls the type of beer brewed before the Industrial Revolution, stored for months or even years in unlined wooden vessels known as tuns. The beer would pick up some lactic sourness as a result of wild yeasts, lactobacilli and tannins in the wood. The result was a beer dubbed ‘stale’ by drinkers: it was one of the components of the early, blended Porters. The style has re-emerged in recent years, due primarily to the fame of Theakston’s Old Peculier, Gale’s Prize Old Ale and Thomas Hardy’s Ale, the last saved from oblivion by O’Hanlon’s Brewery in Devon.

Types of Old Ale

English Strong Ale is very similar to Old Ale but without the complex characteristics that come from long aging.

Brewing Old Ale

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Competition Styles

Both the BJCP and the GABF recognize Old Ale as a distinct style.

BJCP Style Guidelines

Old Ale

19A. Old Ale Vital Statistics
BJCP Style Guideline Definition (2004)
IBUs: 30-60+ SRM: 10-22+ OG: 1.060-1.090+ FG: 1.015-1.022+ ABV: 6-9 (occasionally lower, particularly for UK Winter Warmers)
Aroma: Malty-sweet with fruity esters, often with a complex blend of dried-fruit, vinous, caramelly, molasses, nutty, toffee, treacle, and/or other specialty malt aromas. Some alcohol and oxidative notes are acceptable, akin to those found in Sherry or Port. Hop aromas not usually present due to extended aging.
Appearance: Light amber to very dark reddish-brown color (most are fairly dark). Age and oxidation may darken the beer further. May be almost opaque (if not, should be clear). Moderate to low head; may be adversely affected by alcohol and age.
Flavor: Malty-sweet with fruity esters, often with a complex blend of dried-fruit, vinous, caramelly, molasses, nutty, toffee, treacle, and/or other specialty malt aromas. Some alcohol and oxidative notes are acceptable, akin to those found in Sherry or Port. Hop aromas not usually present due to extended aging.
Mouthfeel: Medium to full, chewy body, although older examples may be lower in body due to continued attenuation during conditioning. Alcohol warmth is often evident and always welcome. Low to moderate carbonation, depending on age and conditioning.
Overall Impression: Malty-sweet with fruity esters, often with a complex blend of dried-fruit, vinous, caramelly, molasses, nutty, toffee, treacle, and/or other specialty malt aromas. Some alcohol and oxidative notes are acceptable, akin to those found in Sherry or Port. Hop aromas not usually present due to extended aging.
History: A traditional English ale style, mashed at higher temperatures than strong ales to reduce attenuation, then aged at the brewery after primary fermentation (similar to the process used for historical porters). Often had age-related character (lactic, Brett, oxidation, leather) associated with "stale" beers. Used as stock ales for blending or enjoyed at full strength (stale or stock refers to beers that were aged or stored for a significant period of time). Winter warmers are a more modern style that are maltier, fuller-bodied, often darker beers that may be a brewery's winter seasonal special offering.
Comments: Strength and character varies widely. Fits in the style space between normal gravity beers (strong bitters, brown porters) and barleywines. Can include winter warmers, strong dark milds, strong (and perhaps darker) bitters, blended strong beers (stock ale blended with a mild or bitter), and lower gravity versions of English barleywines.
Ingredients: Generous quantities of well-modified pale malt (generally English in origin, though not necessarily so), along with judicious quantities of caramel malts and other specialty character malts. Some darker examples suggest that dark malts (e.g., chocolate, black malt) may be appropriate, though sparingly so as to avoid an overly roasted character. Adjuncts (such as molasses, treacle, invert sugar or dark sugar) are often used, as are starchy adjuncts (maize, flaked barley, wheat) and malt extracts. Hop variety is not as important, as the relative balance and aging process negate much of the varietal character. British ale yeast that has low attenuation, but can handle higher alcohol levels, is traditional.
Commercial Examples: Gale's Prize Old Ale, Burton Bridge Olde Expensive, Marston Owd Roger, J.W. Lees Moonraker, Harviestoun Old Engine Oil, Fuller's Vintage Ale, Harvey's Elizabethan Ale, Theakston Old Peculier (peculiar at OG 1.057), Young's Winter Warmer, Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild, Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome, Fuller's 1845, Fuller's Old Winter Ale, Great Divide Hibernation Ale, Hudson Valley Old Man Ale, Cooperstown Pride of Milford Special Ale, Coniston Old Man Ale, North Coast Old Stock Ale.


GABF Style Listings

Old Ale

72A. Old Ale
GABF Style Listing (2007)
Dark amber to brown in color, old ales are medium- to full-bodied with a malty sweetness. Hop aroma should be minimal and flavor can vary from none to medium in character intensity. Fruity-ester flavors and aromas can contribute to the character of this ale. Bitterness should be minimal but evident and balanced with malt and/or caramel like sweetness. Alcohol types can be varied and complex. A distinctive quality of these ales is that they undergo an aging process (often for years) on their yeast either in bulk storage or through conditioning in the bottle, which contributes to a rich and often sweet oxidation character. Complex estery characters may also emerge. Some diacetyl character may be evident and acceptable. Wood-aged characters such as vanillin and other woody characters are acceptable. Horsey, goaty, leathery and phenolic character evolved from Brettanomyces organisms and acidity may be present but should be at low levels and balanced with other flavors. Residual flavors that come from liquids previously aged in a barrel such as bourbon or sherry should not be present; beers that exhibit these qualities should be entered in another category for wood-aged beers. Chill haze is acceptable at low temperatures.
Original Gravity (ºPlato): 1.058-1.088 (14.5-22 ºPlato)
Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato): 1.014-1.030 (3.5-7.5 ºPlato)
Alcohol by Weight (Volume): 5-7.2% (6-9%)
Bitterness (IBU): 30-65
Color SRM (EBC): 12-30 (24-60 EBC)

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