Full disclosure: this is a relatively “new” beer style for me, and I can’t claim years of brewing up versions of this beer. Having said that, this is still a field-tested and quality-checked recipe in its fourth generation, and it might be the best version of it – and I’ve certainly drank more than my share of the beer that it’s based on, so that’s something! Until the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines were released, there were beers like this in my Rolodex (look it up, Millennials), but nothing that I brewed regularly. So, when the new guidelines added this as a defined style, it was more a question of how to update and fine-tune my existing strong British ales so that they were British Strong Ales – as it turned out, there wasn’t very far to go, and the resulting beer (I won’t call it a clone, because it isn’t, really) came into focus very quickly! Fresh, malty, and with noticeable English hops in the nose and on the palate, this is one that’s well suited to cold weather and Boxing Day celebrations.
British Strong Ales are actually an easier to define class of beers than some others I might mention (Old Ale, English Barleywine): they’re strong (obviously), not aged (or Old, as the case may be), and they are very flavor-forward (what?). That last descriptor is admittedly odd, but that’s because this style, like some versions of American Amber or Brown Ale, is both notably rich and malty but can also showcase English hops flavors and aromas at the same time. As a result, it’s both malt-forward and hops-forward, and depending on the recipe and the stage in its life-cycle, it could present as either or both. Strength is another key attribute, but here the goal is simply to ensure that the beer is warmer than the stronger bitters, but stops well short of Barleywine-strength (or even, in my humble opinion, Old Ale strength, though its stronger than the lighter versions of that style). This is a beer that should also be fairly full in the mouth, which will present a choice when we get down to recipe construction.
Unsurprisingly, we start with a 10-pound addition of Maris Otter – nothing like a good English base malt for this style. To that we add a range of crystal malts, to increase body and add the “sugary” flavors we need: one pound of amber malt, as well as half a pound each of Aromatic, British Crystal 45, British Crystal 90, and Special B. Now, for the choice I mentioned earlier: to molasses or not to molasses? An early version had an addition of molasses in there, which really brought out the burnt sugar notes but also made the beer seem unacceptably thin – I only mention it because you might consider it, and I liked the flavor even if it moved the Mouthfeel a bit out-of-style. For the opposite reason (because I want it bulky) let me say that I know that’s a large percentage of crystal malts, but that doesn’t concern me much because a) I want a pretty thick impression, and b) even if it increases the risk of oxidation this is a beer to be consumed “young.”
Hopping is important, but not complicated. Add 2-3 ounces of East Kent Goldings in the boil (any time between 60 and 30 minutes, in a weigh sufficient to yield 48 IBUs), and then one ounce of the same in the whirlpool. That should be more than enough bitterness to balance the malt, and the whirlpool hops addition will add a meaningful and noticeable amount of earthy, floral hops aroma.
London Ale III from Wyeast is a great yeast choice here, especially if (like me) you use it a lot and are comfortable with it. However, I’ve also brewed this with a (free) pitch of Ringwood Ale (Wyeast #1187), and the strawberry-and-pear esters profile it added were a lot of fun! Think about it.
You can mash a bit warmer here if you’re in the mood, to try to add some additional body, but I find that the recipe does just fine on its own in that regard, so I do my usual 152F.If you’re adding molasses, do so while you’re running off into the kettle, and stir to dissolve before putting it over direct heat. It isn’t much, and the action of the lauter and/or sparge will probably do most of the work!
You want to pay attention to initial fermentation temperatures here, however. Assuming you’re using an English yeast, diacetyl is certainly on the table, and it’s really not all that desirable here: medium-heavy body, lots of rich sugary flavors, and a moderate amount of alcohol is fine, but add in a buttery back-note and slickness and you get something that’s just not all that pleasant to drink. So, start low, at about 60F, then raise to 65F after a few days, then after 2-3 more days let the beer free-rise to finish at 68-70F.
Finally, carbonate to just below “moderate,” about 1.9 volumes of CO2.Any higher and the beer loses some of its English character, but lower and you can end up with a thin mouthfeel. If I was going to miss on this one, I’d aim to miss high.
Keep playing with this recipe to make the beer you want. There’s a lot of room for interpretation, and anything from treacle, to flaked barley, to oats, to Belgian candi syrup have made their way into my iterations! Just be sure that you’re letting the hops have their chance to shine, and drink this one right away. It certainly can be cellared and aged, and the Fuller’s 1845 this recipe is based on usually comes to us with some age on it, but it’s really fun as a fresh beer, and I hope someday to even try a wet-hopped version! Until then, enjoy the crisp weather and flavorful beer of this holiday season.