For most styles you need to know which notes to hit hard, which to hit softly, and which to ignore altogether. Old Ale is a style in which that balance is tough to strike, but essential to get right. Let’s start with the name, which might throw brewers for a loop. In particular, it’s the “old”—that means it needs to be aged extensively, right? I mean, it’s right there in the name. It’s also in the “strong ale” category, so you need to be getting a lot of warm alcohols, right? I mean, it’s right there in the name.
Unfortunately for the literalists out there, this is a beer that is not particularly “aged” in its presentation (or, at least, it doesn’t have to be), and in most cases, it is not particularly alcoholic in its presentation (or, at least, it doesn’t have to be—am I getting repetitive this week?). Done well, Old Ale includes flavors that we often associate with aged beers but that can be developed without the risk of actually engaging in extended aging. Don’t let the name fool you.
Historically, Old Ale was the stronger alternative to the bitters and milds that English breweries produced. Since neither of those low-alcohol staples hold up well to aging, a stronger beer was developed that could hold up to some age but was not explicitly aged for any particular reason. In fact, it was common to blend older ales with young beers to make the newer beers taste less green, thereby allowing pubs sell the younger beers sooner and increase their pull-through. Those that were aged, though, often picked up some wild yeast (often Brettanomyces) tartness and funk from their casks, and that plus the vinous quality caused by oxidized alcohols led to the modern interpretation of a moderately strong English ale with complex flavor—though usually without the sour notes.
In the modern era, the term “Old Ale” is something of a catch-all. It includes everything from the shockingly low-alcohol Theakston’s Old Peculier (my third-favorite beer) to winter warmers such as Great Divide Hibernation (a beer so thick and rich it can basically be poured on waffles). For our purposes, your attention is best focused on the defining attribute of complexity.
How do we get complexity in this beer? Recipe is a common tactic, but it should be noted that complexity is usually the result of a few ingredients used well, not just lots of ingredients. That kind of “color with every crayon in the box” mentality is rarely effective. Focus on results, not inputs.
What in our recipe gives us lots of flavors? First, include enough base grain for a meaningful (but not silly) level of alcohol. I like 12 pounds (6.8 kg) of Maris Otter, which should get you to about 1.070 in a 5-gallon batch (19 l). Then add equal parts (about 4 ounces/113 g) of Fawcett Medium Crystal (65L), Briess Extra Special (130L), and Black Patent malt. This grist adds lots of nutty, toffee, raisin, fig, and biscuit notes that you’ll still be able to detect under a moderate amount of alcohol. The Black Patent is particularly important because it will prevent the beer from seeming too sweet.
For hops, you’ll want about 50 IBUs from any clean bittering hops (Nugget is my favorite), with a 60-minute addition.
And for yeast, use your go-to English ale yeast. If you don’t have one, may I recommend Wyeast London Ale III (#1318)? I like the ester profile, and while it isn’t one of the world’s great attenuators, it doesn’t need to be because you’re about to break out your secret weapon.
The most important ingredient in this beer is half of a 16 oz (454 g) can of Lyle’s Black Treacle (if you can’t find it at your local homebrew supply store or supermarket, look for it on Amazon) added just prior to the boil. The sugars will ferment off completely—even British yeasts can manage it—but the intense burnt sugar and molasses flavors that are left behind will kick this beer up to a whole new level. Don’t substitute syrups, blackstrap molasses, or anything else here: Black Treacle. Nothing else.
With your wonderfully complex grist and treacle duly mashed and boiled and cooled, ferment this beer slowly. Start a couple degrees below your typical ale yeast fermentation temperature to ensure that the yeast cells don’t get all excited about the sugar-rich environment you’ve given them and produce a ton of fusels and off-flavors. Ferment slowly, taking a solid 10–14 days before ramping your temperature up for a diacetyl rest. Treat this one like a lager, in fact…just a “warm-ish” one.
After fermentation, package the beer up as usual and carbonate to a relatively low 1.75–2 volumes of CO2. But don’t bother with extended aging. That Black Treacle you added is like liquid time: you’ll notice high-order complexity in the flavor immediately, and while you can age this beer (it should hold up well and continue to develop new flavors), you don’t need to. I once served my Amazon Old Ale 21 days after brewing (5 days in the bottle) at a homebrew club meeting and asked tasters to estimate its age. The guesses ranged from 3–12 months. Five days.
While some will tell you that Old Ale must be aged to accomplish its task of mellowing its alcohols and developing its complexity, that approach carries risks. Aging can just turn into oxidizing, which can, in turn, dull flavors and impart new (and bad) ones. I much prefer to solve this problem from the ingredient side rather than the process side and leave myself the option of aging, rather than the requirement of it!
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