What is an Old Ale?

A somewhat forgotten style in modern beer tastes, Old Ales have a long and varied history. Due to their long aging, old brewing methods, recipes, and historical reverence, Old Ales are slowly making a comeback thanks to modern beer nerds. Dating back to sixteenth century England, old ales are a type of strong ale, which is similar to a barleywine ale. They tend to be darker, sweeter, and more hopped than a barleywine ale.

Originally, hopped ales could be kept for longer periods of time without going bad. English brewers discovered that if you let a beer age in a barrel, the aging provided some oxidative and vinous qualities, and with the addition of Brettanomyces yeast, the beer would metabolize any leftover sugars to create a musty, barnyard ale. Any ale brewed at the end of the spring could be consumed fresh, or could be blended with ale that was leftover from the fall, called stock ale, to give the impression that it had been aged. The blending of fall ale or “old ale” with the spring ale became common practice in the UK for the first half of the eighteenth century and helped create porters.

When mass production of ale started, Old Ales were no longer necessary, but the style lived on in Imperial stouts and Baltic porters. From Old Ales we also get Burton Ales, which are ales that were created in Burton-on-Trent during the 1700’s and disappeared in the early 20th century, but that’s for another time.

Due to wartime taxation and scarcity of raw materials, Old Ales saw a sharp decline around World War I. After World War II, the style gained in popularity again but fell off in the early 1980s. In the past few years, Old Ales and Barleywine ales have started to gain in popularity and have distinctively separated themselves, though today’s old ales are usually bottle aged instead of the traditional cask aging

Old Ales range from 4 - 12% ABV. Tasting notes include malt with various shades of caramel, chocolate with a fruity sweetness. They are low attenuated beers with high levels of dextrins. The color should be very dark brown to almost black. Examples include Theakston Old Peculiar, Fullers 1845, North Coast Old Stock Ale, Founders Curmudgeon, and Great Divide Hibernation.