Beowulf—the classic Anglo-Saxon epic poem adored by teachers, feared by students, and butchered by the 2007 film of the same name—is one of the earliest surviving examples of Old English literature. Its lines are a fertile breeding ground for such timeless themes as heroes and quests, honor and loyalty, and good versus evil. These universal archetypes are found in diverse literary traditions worldwide and span the full history of written human communication.
Style guides are a bit to beer as archetypal criticism is to literature: an attempt to tease unifying themes (styles) from what Carl Jung termed the collective unconscious (countless individual examples). Sometimes the analysis is uncomplicated: IPAs feature heaps of hops, stouts possess rich roastiness, and hefeweizens showcase heady hues of banana and clove. At other times, the distinguishing features are less pronounced, which is one reason competitions will always have a Specialty Beer category.
Strong ales of British and American provenance—barleywine, stock ale, old ale, and wheatwine—occupy a small but vocal corner of the stylistic corpus. They’re all closely related, and the qualities that separate them are more fuzzy gray smudges than sharp black lines. Rather than classify these strong ales according to their distinguishing features, then, let us consider the common themes that connect them to one another.
Until the recent (and welcome) trend toward sessionable craft beer, it appeared as if brewers had all thrown down the gauntlet to see who could brew the most alcoholic beer possible. This friendly, but intoxicating, competition meant that barleywine, along with imperial IPA and Russian imperial stout, was often pushed to the front of the lineup. But barleywine has always been in a class all its own.
Imperial IPA is new money, the college kid who commercializes a mobile app, cashes in on an overvalued IPO, buys a Ferrari or two, and holds the public’s attention until the next big thing comes along. Russian imperial stout is regal, established, and immensely wealthy, but the source of that wealth remains always as murky and dark as the glass itself.
Barleywine, however, is an elegant grande dame, the Dowager Countess of strong ales. She enjoys enormous power but remains always dignified and measured. To gain a private audience with her is rare, but such encounters invariably leave one feeling more refined, simply from having been in her presence. And she switches between English and American accents with ease.
English barleywine is the strongest in a progression of a styles that may have their origins in parti-gyle brewing, but by the time that barleywine became recognized in its own right, all of the runnings of a single mash were combined to create a single potent ale. It exhibits a chewy, complex malt body that evokes plums and toffee and leaves residual sweetness in the final product. Aggressive hops bitterness helps balance that sweetness, and an alcoholic strength that can easily surpass 10 percent ABV enhances the complexity and creates a pleasant impression of warmth. Signature English yeast strains round out the experience of fruity decadence. This is the beer you want to sip on when you ignite and serve the Christmas pudding.
American barleywine is a direct offshoot of English barleywine. As with other American interpretations of English styles, it’s often bigger, usually more bitter, and always hoppier. Flavor and aroma hops emphasize uniquely American hops varieties and all of the citrus and pine they imply. Like English barleywine, American barleywine’s malt complexity and alcoholic warmth are substantial, but yeast character in American barleywine is more restrained than in the English version.
Barleywines are meant to have some age on them, at least six months, and many enthusiasts insist on a year or more. Many barleywines can even age for decades, and some pleasant oxidation can improve the best examples with notes of sherry and port.
Stock ale is the vaguest of the strong styles, a legend of fermentation whose heyday is widely acknowledged, but whose precise details remain unclear. Like the Icelandic sagas, much of stock ale’s appeal lies in its seamless blending of fact and fiction.
The term stock ale was historically more about process than style, which only adds to the mystery. Like barleywine, stock ale is a malt-focused strong ale, but it appears to predate barleywine by up to two centuries.
Such ales would have been quite alcoholic, aggressively bittered, and in dire need of up to a year of aging, which at the time would have taken place in wooden casks. Stock ale, then, was simply the beer one kept in stock, so to speak. It may have served as a so-called “keeping beer,” which in the mid- to late-nineteenth century would have been blended with a “running beer” of more recent provenance. The keeping beer supplied the alcohol while the running beer offered freshness.
Over a period of months, these hefty, malty ales would almost certainly have taken on some Brettanomyces funk and Lactobacillus sourness. In fact, the term Brettanomyces means “British fungus,” a name bestowed upon the microbe by researchers at Copenhagen’s Carlsberg brewery after they isolated it from none other than British stock ales.
So what does all of this mean to the modern craft-beer drinker? What should one expect from a product labeled as stock ale in the twenty-first century? Opinions will certainly differ, depending upon whom you ask. But to me, today’s stock ale is nothing more than a romantically evocative synonym for old ale. Using the term stock ale might hint at the presence of some funk or acidity, but in today’s parlance, stock ale and old ale are interchangeable.
Stock ale can be hard to pin down, but old ale is quite simple: It’s session barleywine. It’s what you get when barleywine is too much but brown ale is too little. Many of the best English-style winter warmers are actually old ales wrapped in new clothing. Indeed, the inimitable beer writer Michael Jackson noted that old ale is “a warming beer of the type that is best drunk in half pints by a warm fire on a cold winter’s night.”
Old ale is a strong British-style ale that usually features a nose reminiscent of caramel, molasses, or dark fruit. Some examples include alcoholic notes in the aroma but never as robust as what you’d get from a barleywine. These aromas carry over into old ale’s complex flavor, which demonstrates some of the same dark-fruit character of the best Belgian-style dubbels, alongside a definitive aged persona that can come off as oxidative, acidic, musty, or even leathery. In well-made examples, these characteristics support one another and deliver a rich, smooth sipping experience.
Rather than consider old ale a distinct style, I prefer to think of old ale and barleywine as occupying a continuum that spans a range of original gravities from about 1.060 to 1.120. Somewhere around 1.090, one leaves old-ale territory and enters the barleywine zone, but the precise point at which that occurs is hazy at best and, in my opinion, a futile exercise that wastes time that could better be spent following Mr. Jackson’s excellent advice.
Can a strong ale be refreshing? If that strong ale is wheatwine, then the answer is undoubtedly yes. Wheatwine is barleywine’s sprightly, fun-loving sister who continues to skydive and travel the world well into her nineties.
A relatively modern American strong style, wheatwine includes at least 50 percent wheat malt in the grist and exhibits the signature bready, grainy sweetness associated with wheat. A caramel character can be present, but it’s rarely as dark or complex as what one experiences in barleywine.
Most examples rely on an American or English yeast strain to deliver an ester profile that can range from squeaky clean to firmly fruity. Interestingly, wheatwines almost never employ Bavarian Hefeweizen yeasts, another sign that this young style remains wide open for experimentation.
Strength in Numbers
Though barleywines, stock ales, old ales, and wheatwines are among the most challenging ales a brewer can tackle, their popularity continues to increase. Barleywine and old ales enjoy a long, storied heritage, and wheatwine appears poised to gain further ground in the coming years. Even rye is making inroads, with so-called rye wines starting to appear, some of them aged in rye whiskey barrels.
So get out there and enjoy them all. Or better yet, brew one of your own. There’s never been a better time to indulge in a few feats of strength.