Old Ale is a very loosely defined style, as far as I can tell. This seems to be the case with a lot of old English styles. I think of Old Ale as Barleywine’s little brother, but they were originally just strong, aged beers that were meant to be blended with Milds, which at the time were weaker young beers. Mixing two or more different beers to satisfy customers’ tastes was standard for London barkeepers until porter was created in 1700’s. Some porters still mention “Entire” in their packaging, which was meant to encourage people to drink porter without having to mix multiple beers to achieve good balance.
Mild ale at the time was very fresh, with fruity yeast flavors and was possibly not even finished fermenting, making it too sweet. Old ale, on the other hand was aged for long periods in wooden barrels, which were often not completely air tight. The beer was exposed to oxygen and wild yeast, making it sour and harsh. In small quantities, these attributes could give favorable complexity, but the processes which lead to these flavors were not understood and they ran out of control, requiring blending to make the beer palatable.
Another version of old ale later made for home consumption was actually already blended by the brewer. In this interpretation, a stock ale, which is basically the same as the old ale I described above, was blended with newer batch of the same or a similar beer and then packaged as old ale.
More recently, old ales are often referred to as Winter Warmer and are Winter seasonal beers in many breweries portfolios. Many brewers use old ale as a base beer which they add spices to for their Christmas Ale.
All of this history is interesting (I hope), but what is an old ale? Well, as I mentioned, it’s pretty loosely defined. Basically, it is a strong, dark (but not opaque) ale with big malt flavor that is aged. Often, it’s aged in oak, but it doesn’t have to be. Mine is not. Mine is aged in a plastic carboy. Winter warmers (which is not any better defined) have become the standard for old ales, at least in America. I’ve decided to prepare mine for the Summer. It will, of course, be a good candidate to continue aging in the bottle, and I do plan to save quite a few for next Winter, but a nice, big, malty, dark ale sounds like it will fit in pretty well in grilling season.
When I make German beers, I tend to try to stick to German ingredients. I don’t always do that with English styles. Since most “American” styles are repurposed English styles, I figure this is a tradition in it’s own right. For this beer, I used American hops, that famous American pale ale yeast from Chico and American base malt with an international blend of specialty grains. I used a lot of Crisp Brown malt from England, which may not have a whole lot in common with the original smoky brown malt from those early porters, but it does give a nice coffee flavor and aroma. I debated for a while about what dark crystal malt to use, then decided to just split it between the darkest American crystal malt and the darkest Belgian one. 120L is often cited as adding a burnt sugar flavor and Special B is raisiny. And I still think this all sounds like a good beer to go with a steak fresh off the grill on an early Summer evening in the backyard.
I plan to age the beer for about five months and then bottle it to begin enjoying in June. If it is as good as I hope, I’m thinking about brewing another batch as soon as the first one is ready, but adding some spices and keeping that for this year’s Christmas beer. My recipe is below.
Style: 19A. Old Ale
Brew Date: 1/26/2014
Expected Serve Date: June, 2014
Expected FG: 1.015
Estimated ABV: 7.7%
82.4% Pale Malt
11.8% Brown Malt
2.9% Crystal 120L
2.9% Special B
60 min 32 IBU Chinook
20 min 18 IBU Brewer’s Gold
10 min 11 IBU Brewer’s Gold
25 quarts of water at 167º added to malt to get a temperature of 155º and held for one hour.
Sparged with 170º water to get six gallons over one hour.
One hour boil and then cool to room temperature as quickly as possible.
Fermented at room temperature in a six gallon carboy until visible activity stopped, about two weeks. Then racked to a five gallon carboy and given another week at room temperature to watch for renewed activity. After that, the carboy was moved to the cold basement to age for another few months.