Old Ale: Like a Fine Wine, But Better

A Style Profile of a Real Classic

by Michael Agnew

Hopped beers were first introduced into England from Holland sometime around 1400. Hops have preservative properties that stabilize beer and help prevent spoilage. Their arrival on the island allowed for the brewing of strong beers that were meant for aging. They were called “stale” beers; stale not in the modern sense of having become diminished from age, but in a much older usage meaning “well matured.” These beers were kept for at least a year before leaving the brewery, sometimes longer. An Essex clergyman by the name of William Harrison wrote in 1577 describing very strong beers in England going by names such as Huffcap, Mad Dog, and Dragon’s Milk, and my favorite Merry-Go-Down. He told of English nobility on their estates competing with one another to serve the oldest beer, “each one coveting to have the same stale as he may be, so that it be not sour.” A 1703 Guide to Gentlemen Farmers for Brewing the Finest Malt Liquors said that there were “many country gentlemen who talk of and magnify their stale beers of five, ten or more years old.” The old ales of old could be very old indeed.

Modern-day old ale interpretations maintain this suitability for aging. They are of sufficient strength and hoppiness that under the right conditions they should stay good for years. Old ale is said to fall just below barley wine on the spectrum of beer style, although I find that the dividing line between them is often just a wee bit blurry. At any rate, these are sipping beers, best enjoyed from a snifter on a cold, winter night. Add the warming glow of a fire and you’ve got the recipe for perfect satisfaction.

Old ales are typically amber to reddish brown, although some may be quite dark, even opaque. They are complex, malt-forward beers that exude aromas of caramel, toffee, nuts and molasses, with dried fruits filling in the cracks. The flavor follows suit. Most are malty-sweet with overtones of caramel, molasses and nuts. Darker versions may have mild chocolate or roasted notes. Dried fruit flavors are not at all uncommon. Aged examples may exhibit some oxidation character, giving the impression of fine sherry or port. These are enhanced by sturdy, alcohol warmth. Although some earthy hop character may be evident, hop levels are usually fairly low and may be nearly nonexistent in older examples. Bitterness as well tends to be on the lower end. Alcohol levels fall somewhere between 6 and 9 percent.

Big beers take big foods, and old ale is a fairly big beer. Hearty meat dishes and seasonal comfort foods are the way to go when pairing to the style. Roast beef and grilled or roasted lamb and venison make perfect partners. With shared origins in the English countryside, shepherd’s pie makes a great “if-it-grows-together-it goes-together” kind of pairing. I love old ale with a super-rich mac & cheese, especially if you throw some blue cheese into the mix. And speaking of cheese, try old ale with Stilton, Double Gloucester, or a funky, aged, goat cheese like Humboldt Fog. And don’t forget dessert. Old ale is great with caramel desserts like crème brulee or toffee apple crisp.

There are several old ales – both English and American – available in Twin Cities beer stores. For the English examples, Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome is one of my seasonal favorites. It’s on the light end at 6 percent alcohol. Toffee and biscuit notes dominate with just enough floral hops to keep it balanced. Yorkshire Stingo is an oak-aged example of the style from Samuel Smith. It’s amazingly complex with caramel, dried fruit and orange marmalade flavors all underscored by drying, oaky tannins; liquid heaven. Fuller’s Vintage Ale is certainly worth a try. Although great fresh, the brewery recommends laying this one down for three or four years to allow it to reach its peak.

If you want your old ale made in America, try Founders Old Curmudgeon. This one is all brown sugar and dried fruit with huge notes of fig and rum-soaked raisins. Another option is Great Divide’s Hibernation Ale. It leans to the hoppier end of the style spectrum with solid bitterness and ample, earthy hop flavor layered onto rich caramel and toffee malt.


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