The Tale of Old Ale
Submitted by Jack Senticad
Old Ales -
It’s a shame this name seems to have negative connotations for some people because
old ales have a flavor profile that many drinkers, currently rapt with barrel-aged stouts,
might love. Old ales are the original barrel-aged beers, and they have a complexity,
acidity, and gentle sweetness that make them very contemporary.
The lineage of old ales dates back 400 years to just after the adoption of hops in
England. The island brewers had finally come around to that bitter herb continental
brewers had been using to preserve their ales, but it took them a long time. Until they
started using hops, beer didn’t last. It was made and served fresh because in time, it
would begin to sour. With the hops to retard the worst ravages of this process, brewers
discovered they could make stronger beers that could ripen in casks for months without
turning into vinegar.
Over the centuries, British brewers have made a variety of different strong beers that
could, as a group, be called old ales. The first was called “double,” appearing during the
reign of Elizabeth I, and it was so popular that it began to displace weaker beer. This was
followed by “double double,” a beer so strong and expensive the Queen forbade its
production. These beers, quite popular, were known by a variety of unpragmatic names
such as Mad Dog, Huffcap, Crackskull, and Merry-Go-Down.
The lineage of old ales continued with Burton ales, which emerged in the 1740s. Brewed
to gravities higher than 1.100, they were very thick and heavy and very bitter and were
often made palatable only by ripening in oak. Descriptions of these beers don’t sound
contemporary: at once syrupy sweet and bracingly bitter, they found their balance
through competing intensities. They were made in the great brewing mecca of Burton-
upon-Trent and were contemporaneous with the porters being made in London, and this
was the era in which English brewers started to get a handle on aging beer.
From this practice of vat aging emerged a type of beer known variously as “stock,”
“stale,” or “old” ale. These names tell us a lot. As the beer sat in barrels, it went stale—
that is, flat. This was in contrast to regular “mild” or fresh beer, which was served, as it is
today, lively and effervescent from the natural carbonation the beer produced. Because
the beer was both intensely flavored and still, it was regularly “stocked” at the pub to
blend with fresh ale.
All three terms—stock, stale, and old—were specific designations to describe what the
beer was and how it was used. There was also a tradition of serving strong barrel-aged
ales unblended and often bottled. In the nineteenth century, certain regional variations
helped elevate these beers, if not to a style, at least to a kind of commercial coherence.
In Yorkshire, breweries made “Stingo.”
In Sheffield and other parts of the North, “Old Tom” became a regional specialty. Others,
though, were singular products made as a specialty offering with little regard to style.
They were strong, aged in vats, and ripened until they produced refined sherry-like
Their natures were revealed somewhat in 1904 when Carlsberg’s Niels Claussen took a
sample of English old ale and found it contained an unusual yeast type. He classified it
Brettanomyces, or “British fungus,” as an acknowledgment of its source. (Those who wish
to make beers with some of that classic old-ale character should seek out the strain
Brettanomyces claussenii, which was the strain Claussen isolated.)
Of course, those wild microorganisms resident in vats of old ale continued to change the
beer, turning it more acidic and vinous as it aged—and were thus the source of that
sherry-like palate. In terms of volume, old ales were never a dominant style, but they had
a remarkable run. As other styles came and went, old ales continued to plug along
through to the twentieth century. Then the World Wars arrived. Across Europe, war,
famine, and rationing were devastating to traditional styles, and no country was more
affected than Great Britain. We think of low-alcohol pub beers as innate to the country,
but until World War I, they were uncommon—a standard beer was about 6 percent.
Grain rationing during the wars forced brewers to weaken their beers enormously.
Strengths rebounded after that war, but after a second go-round in World War II, Britons
developed a taste for weaker beers, and gravities permanently stayed low. With one
exception. As a reaction to the austerity of wartime, old ales enjoyed a resurgence in the
1950s. The number that continued to be vat-aged dwindled, but a few survived the
century. Gale’s Prize Old Ale was the standard bearer until the brewery closed a decade
Now, only Greene King continues to make an example, a blend of 12 percent strong ale
aged for a minimum of 18 months and fresh lower-gravity beer in a product called Strong
Suffolk. The blending takes away much of the heft, but it retains a wonderful aged
character. These beers are unusual to our modern palates, with dense creamy bodies
balanced by hops bitterness and the unexpected acidity, spice, and dryness of the yeast.
But one imagines there’s a possible future for them. Mixed-fermentation ales and robust
stouts are two of the most popular styles right now, and old ales are a kind of marriage
between the two.
Unfamiliarity is always a barrier, but drinkers who persist will find that these beers have
a balance most stouts lack and a velvety heartiness absent in wild ales. In old ales,
drinkers find the best of both worlds. Some advice to pragmatic brewers, though: maybe
just don’t call them “old ales.” A little romance can do wonders to sell beer.
beernexus.com - SPECIAL REPORT
What is Old Ale // Stock Ale
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