British brewers, even ones toiling in gracious wrought iron–adorned Victorian breweries, are pragmatists first, last, and always. You may locate romance in their buildings and old processes, but the brewers will shrug and tell you the real reason they do a thing is that it’s easiest, best, or quickest. So it is with the names Brits have chosen for their beers: bitter, mild, pale, brown, and perhaps the least poetic of all, old.
Why invent a flowery name when you can just designate it by type? And in a world where innovation and youthfulness dominate the beer industry, could they have invented any worse name for a style of beer? Check your local beer aisle for old ales, and you can confirm that indeed, they’re not selling gangbusters right now.
That’s a shame because old ales have a flavor profile that many younger 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 flavors.
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 ago.
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.
A Possible Future
Now the tradition of English old ales lives, as much as anywhere, in the barrels and foeders of American craft breweries inspired by this old tradition. The historic old ales picked up their Brett naturally, in the staves of the oak in which they were aged. American craft breweries don’t leave matters to chance, adding the wild yeast after primary fermentation of a strong ale. Most Americans adhere to tradition in the grist, with a base of English pale and crystal malts and a dash of dark for color. They may hop stiffly or gently to preference with English varieties and add a classic yeast strain to develop esters.
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.