Matt’s Myriad of Ale Styles #17 – Old Ale

I’ve decided to go back to a classic English style for this edition – one that was part of CAMRA’s longstanding campaign to promote endangered beer styles – Old Ale.

Together with fellow darker styles of mild (#3), porter (#7) and stout (#9), there were recent serious concerns that Old Ale was on the verge of extinction.

Apparently, the beer is also known as Stale Ale, Stock Ale or County Ale, but I can’t profess to have come across those names before.

Before the current fad for barrel ageing of beer, as far back as the 18th century Strong Ale was allowed to mature in oak casks for a year or more. The result? Lactobacilli bacterial infections, wild brettanomyces yeast, tannins from the wood and acidic/sour flavours!

This extravagantly tasting beer was then usually blended with a younger, fresher beer – sometimes a younger version of itself. Sadly, the blending of beers is quite rare these days, but is still carried out with some Old Ales, as it is with other drinks, such as Sherry (Jerez) in Spain.

Perhaps one of the most famous Old Ales is 5X by Greene King. This is a rare beer in its own right, which is aged in giant oak casks called tuns (hence the Three Tuns pub in Coppergate, York). It has an ABV of 12% and is described as being very sweet and a bit tart, so it is then blended to create the more common Strong Suffolk (6%), an altogether more marketable proposition from a commercial point of view.

In writing this article I’ve learnt that the Greene King beer Old Crafty Hen (6.5%) is actually the result of a blend of Old Speckled Hen (5%) and 5X.

Traditionally, Old Ale is full bodied, malt forward and has a strong ABV, but is quite pale. The time taken to age the beer meant it was one of the more expensive styles.

The modern version in the UK is similar to a Strong Mild. The malts are pale, crystal and other roasted malt and the hops are of English origin. The ABV is usually north of 4.5% and the flavour profile can include berry and tropical fruit notes, but the beer isn’t usually aged for very long.

Another famous example of the style is Gale’s Prize Old Ale (9%), now brewed by Fullers of Chiswick since its acquisition of Gale’s of Hampshire. Fullers pulled a blinder in which it continually blended its version of the beer with some of the original Gale’s beer, thereby transferring the bacteria with it. Apparently, the 2007 Vintage is the most eagerly sought after by aficionados.

Other Old Ales that you are fairly likely to have come across are Theakston Old Peculiar (5.6%), brewed at the famous, family-owned brewery in Masham, North Yorkshire, Moor Old Freddy Walker (7.3%) from the innovative Moor of Bristol and Robinsons Old Tom (8.5%) made by Robinsons of Stockport, another famous family brewer. At the recent York Beer & Cider Festival, I enjoyed Special Reserve (7.2%) from Axholme Brewing Company in Crowle, North Lincolnshire, which shows that the style is not just the preserve of historical family breweries, but has been embraced by smaller, younger brewers too.

A great place to enjoy Old Ales is the Manchester CAMRA Beer & Cider Festival, the next of which takes place at Manchester Central from Thursday 24th to Saturday 26th January – www.mancbeerfest.uk. So, as the nights draw in and the temperatures drop, why not warm your cockles in a cosy pub with a pint of Old Ale? (MG)

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