by Allen Huerta
Old Ale…what is it? A beer? Old beer? Old IPA? English Barleywine? Small Stouts? A beer at all? Dark & malty? Sweet & sour? The basis of the IPA we know today?
Some home brewers that are out there brewing this style don’t even know. The BJCP, in 2008, defined the style as:
“An ale of significant alcohol strength, bigger than strong bitters and brown porters, though usually not as strong or rich as a barleywine. Usually tilted toward a sweeter, maltier balance.”
In the 2014 BJCP Draft Guidelines, the text is cleaned up a bit, but reads essentially the same. There has been a better definition as to what characteristics are acceptable, even if they may normally be considered faults. Some of the commercial examples that are on the market today taste amazing, but they miss out on key characteristics of the style.
The Old Ale is a somewhat historic style. Ales of this magnitude were typically brewed for special occasions and used the best ingredients that brewers could get their hands on. At this time strong ales were a direct representation of the best beer a brewery could make. They were often preserved for special occasions: weddings, anniversaries, and even coronations. Some of these beers were put into casks and cellared for quite a long time. These beers came to be known as “Old”, “Stale”, “Stock”, or “Keeping” ales. Some versions were just aged Mild Ales from a time when a Mild was of considerably higher alcoholic strength. These versions of Stock Ales were often blended with young mild ale at the bar to suit individual consumer taste.
Some of these beers would pick up the character of spontaneously fermented ales; notes that are associated with other well-known styles that were wood-aged and “Lambic-like.” A way some brewers would distinguish their Old Ale from other strong ales was by the introduction of adjuncts. Higher proportions of sugars, molasses, treacle, or invert sugar would be added along with ingredients such as flaked barley, wheat, or maize to enhance the body of the beer.
There are a few out there that say you can’t make an Old Ale without treacle. Others think that it only lends a distinct flavor profile in the finished beer and it is not required for a great example of the style. The 2014 Draft Guidelines make no specific mention of treacle as a required element. However, what they do point out is that an impression of age is a key factor, regardless of how the brewer decides to interpret that.
Common characteristics of age, as listed, are: complexity, lactic, Brett, oxidation, leather, vinous quality, etc. It is also noted that, “Even if these qualities are otherwise faults, if the resulting character of the beer is still pleasantly drinkable and complex, then those characteristics are acceptable. In no way should those allowable characteristics be interpreted as making an undrinkable beer as somehow in style.”
Between the two versions of the guidelines, the Old Ale has just been better defined, not changed. The only notable difference is the OG has been adjusted a few points, and the ABV as well to stay in line. Hopefully the clarification of the style will lead everyone to further enjoy Old Ales and lead both brewers and drinkers to branch out and try something new. In the words of the late Michael Jackson, “It should be a warming beer of the type that is best drunk in half pints by a warm fire on a cold winter’s night.” Consider that the next time you are looking at bottles on the shelf or deciding what style you want to brew.