Old Ale is a English beer with a dark, malty profile also called “Winter Warmers”, “Stock ale”, “Keeping Ale” or “Dark Ale” in Australia. It was traditionally served along with mild ales, and sometimes blended with mild at the tap to suit a customer’s preference. This week, we’re going to talk about how to brew old ale at home and cover a few homebrewing recipes for old ale.
Old ale has its origin in English pubs where the sharper, stronger “stock ale” was often blended with sweeter mild ale. Old ale was frequently cask aged for extended periods, often giving it a slightly sour, lactic taste due to contamination of the casks with lactic bacteria. At one time Old Ale was made from simply storing mild for extended periods in casks and selling it at a higher price, though over time old ale developed into a style of its own. (ref: Wikipedia) Variants of old ale are thought to have formed the basis for India Pale Ale.
A variation of old ale called Winter Warmers is a more modern style that has a slightly maltier, darker and full bodied character. Winter warmers are brewed in winter, are darker (though not as dark as stout) and have higher alcohol content (6-8% and sometimes as high as 10%). Some US winter warmers also are brewed with spice additions.
The Old Ale Style
Old ale has medium to high malt character and a complex flavor profile that often includes caramel, nutty or molasses flavors. Light chocolate or roasted flavors are also common. The overall balance is malty though it may be well hopped. Fruity esters are common as in many English ales. Extended aging may give it a lactic (sour), or aged wine character and alcohol strength may be evident. It is generally full bodied with low to moderate carbonation.
Color can be light amber to dark reddish brown (SRM 10-22). While most are quite dark and may darken further with aging, they generally are not quite as dark as stouts.
The strength of old ale varies widely but is generally in the range of 6-9% (original gravity of 1.060-1.090). They have a fairly high finishing gravity of 1.015-1.022 leaving plenty of residual sweetness and body. (Ref: BJCP Style 19A)
Brewing an English Old Ale
The grain bill for old ale starts with copius amounts of well modified English pale malt. Typically this makes up the bulk of the grain bill. Darker caramel malts give old ale its color and character – frequently from a mix of various color caramel malts with sparing character malts. Small amounts of chocolate or black malt may be used, but they must be used sparingly to avoid an undesirable roasted character.
Adjuncts such as molasses, treacle, invert sugar or dark sugars raise alcohol content along with high protein adjuncts such as flaked barley, wheat and maize (for body) are often added.
English hop varieties are often used for bittering. Aroma, finishing and dry hops are rarely needed as the extended aging tends to negate the effect of hop aroma additions. 30-60 IBUs of bittering is recommended to balance the highly malty old ale flavor.
A high temperature (full bodied) mash (around 156F) is appropriate. A single infusion mash is sufficient as the highly modified pale malt will convert well during the mash.
English ale yeast is used for fermentation at traditional ale temperatures. Some care must be taken to choose strains that can handle the higher alcohol content found in some stronger old ales. Old ale is aged for extended periods (many months and sometimes years) and was traditionally stored in large wooden casks. Oak chips or wood chips may be appropriate depending on your preference. Some versions also had a slight lactic sourness from aging which could be duplicated with judicious use of lactic acid, lactic bacteria during aging or the addition of a small amount of soured beer. Keep in mind that the sourness is not a dominant flavor.
Old Ale Recipes
Here are some sample old ale recipes from the BeerSmith recipe archive:
- BC Heavy Water D20 – Extract
- Castle News – All Grain
- Lets Get Pis*ed Ale – Extract
- Old Perpendicular – Extract
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