Monday, July 4, 2011

Ed's Beer of the Month: Old Ale

It was announced that East End Brewery in Pittsburgh is to bottle Old Ale. Just want is old ale and why should you drink it? Well, if contemporary drinking habits are followed it should be well received in the local bars. Old ale is an English beer term denoting a strong ale that was set aside to mature and mellow. Strong English ale is purposely made to a higher gravity with the intention to be served after a short maturation time. Maturation is the ageing of beer under controlled conditions. This allows the beer to develop various characteristics and qualities that people find more desirable over ordinary strong ale. Some strong ale may exhibit a bite from imbalance of alcohol. Old ale has been allowed to mellow out, much like the young warrior transforms to a wise old man, albeit wobbly knees and back pain. One of the reasons the beer is allowed to change condition is so it can be blended with other pale or brown ales. When set aside for this reason the beer is referred to as a stock-ale. Incidentally, when different beers are combined by a brewer or bottler it is called blending. When done during serving it is mixing.

Old ale does not have to have a high OG, although what the Brits think is high as to what we have on tap these days can open some eyes. Many English Old ales have less alcohol than the BJCP guidelines list. These ales fit in between strong ales and barley wines but the evidence of a lot of alcohol need not be overwhelming. Theakston’s Old Peculier (4.5 abw/5.6 abv) has an exciting taste yet is so mellow that is almost seems like a dark mild. Yes, the 5.6% is a bit much by UK standards but I always have a pint at The Swan in Cosmo Place, London WC1.

When strong ale is matured for a longer vatting time, preferably in oak, it is said to have gone stale. This is not a bad word. It simply means that it has been allowed to “stand” for a while. The word stale is a very old English word meaning, stand as in a stable where a horse would stand to rest. Old Ale should have expressive notes of fruit, hops and malt and should be bittersweet. To be true to style is should mature in oak for more than a year. Sadly I don’t think many American brewers are doing this. Roger Protz called one of his favorites port wine with hops (Protz, Taste of Beer, 92). Overall, the beer will be mahogany to dark ruby. Fruit should be expressed on the palate as well as a dryish hop bitterness. North Coast Brewery reflects Protz’s assertion of the port wine comparison. See what the BJCP has to say about Old Ale. This is what CAMRA has to say about Old Ale.

Other than Old Peculier (correct spelling by the way) good examples are:

Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale US 10.2% abv 1.098OG

Full Sail Wassail US 7% abv

North Coast Old Stock Ale US 12.5% abv

Robinson’s Old Tom (labeled as Strong Ale) UK

Ringwood Old Thumper UK 5.6%abv

Young’s Old Nick UK 6.8% abv

Weyerbacher Black Hole US 7.0% abv

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