Old Ales and the story of Old Peculier

BritishStrongAle-WadworthOldTimerA big step up from Pale Ales, the Old Ale is below a Barley Wine but still with plenty of alcohol - sometimes over 7% - but many have achieved the strong taste without high levels of hops. It's usually darker, thicker and has a rich malt taste with lots of balancing hops.

Strong ales go way, way back. The Domesday book of 1086 records a brewer using a total of 5.6 lb of grain per gallon. Barley, wheat, and oats in vast quantities. More than is used now for an Imperial Stout or Barleywine. Beer had to be made that way to stay drinkable without refrigeration - or even well-sealed casks. The preservative properties of hops weren't known yet. This condition lasted into the 1800s when gravities (sugars in the wort) went down a bit.

Worthington Burton Ale in 1800 was brewed at 1103 OG with 8.7% ABV. In 1890 this same beer was 1097 and 7.9%.

But they aren't called Old Ales because the style is old but because of the aging it gets before it's ready to drink - but the style really is one of the older types of beer. They are now mainly a winter drink but in the 1800s breweries often shut down during the summer when temperatures were too hot for fermentation and Old Ales that were brewed in the winter made their appearance in the pubs.

BritishStrongAle-MarstonsOwdRodgerThen known as Stock Ale, Old Ale was much more prevalent than today. It gradually disappeared in the industrial age mainly due to the cost of brewing and the development of Porter but has made a come-back with the popularity of Old Peculier (see below).

Old Ale was one of the styles mixed to make early Entire Butt beers that became the Porter style. This in part because London breweries brought Stock Ale out of the cellar to mix with dwindling supplies of fresh beer during the summer. Any left once brewing resumed in the autumn was called Old Ale. Industrialization and refrigeration actually spelled doom in this case.

Today, these beers are occasionally found on tap in cask conditioned form but are more often bottled and suitable for aging in your house like a fine wine. Many are bottle-conditioned (with a touch of yeast added) to further enhance aging. All have been held in casks or wooden tuns to develop their characteristics.

Malty sweetness predominates and hopefully there's some sourness, dark fruit (melanoidin), and maybe woody flavors - all due to the aging process. Actually Old Ale was a much sweeter beer back in the 1800s. Fermentation was not done as thoroughly as today (not attenuated as much) so there were more residual sugars in the finished product.

Many brewers use a secondary fermentation and introduce Brettanomyces bacteria to give an earthy, "horse blanket" character.

Most Old Ales are made in Britain. Some US brewers make similar beers but usually lack the brettanomyces sourness that became traditional and needed to be added after casks became metal instead of wood, a good harbor of microflora. The term Barleywine is often applied to Strong Ales in the US.

Native Territory: Southern England

Color (SRM): A large range. Amber to dark reddish. Brown (8 - 21).

Head: Usually very little.

Aromas: Sweet malt. Dark fruit. Candy such as toffee, caramel, or treacle. Roastiness. Leather. Tobacco.

Flavors: Malt, fruit, plum. Sherry sweetness. Earthiness. Tannin. Wood. Some oxidation. Lactic acid.

Finish: Strong with a bitter ending. Not necessarily long.

Mouthfeel: Reasonably thick but far less than chewy.

Carbonation: Some carbonation can build throughout years of aging.

Alcohol: A large range. Quite noticeable. Warming. 4.5 - 10% ABV.

Bitterness (IBU): Spicy bitterness in the background only to balance the sweetness. (30 - 70 IBU).

Serving: Suitable for a smaller, wide-mouth glass. Serve at 50°F plus

Malts: Pale, Crystal, Chocolate, Black Patent, Roasted.

Hops: Fuggles, Northdown.

Yeast: British Ale Yeast. London ESB Ale Yeast. Ringwood Ale Yeast.

Related Styles: Winter Warmers are similar seasonal beers that have more spices and/or fruit added.

Notes: Sometimes molasses or treacle are added to the mash. Brettanomyces bacteria are often added to the aging beer in Britain.

Bob's Pick:

Logo-Ridley-OldBobRidley's Old Bob - Chelmsford, Essex, England megabrewery - Reddish. Caramelly and vinous with a touch of licorice. All Fuggles hops. 5.1%

Rare Gems:

Goose Island Imperial Brown Goose - Chicago regional brewery - A blend of Christmas Ales from two years that have been aged in bourbon barrels.

Robinson's Old Tom - Stockport, Cheshire, England regional brewery - Strong but with delicate flavors. Chocolate, plum, port. Long bitter-sweet finish. 8.5%

Logo-WadworthWadworth Old Timer - Devises, Wiltshire, England regional brewery - Buttery smooth and bracing. Winter seasonal. 5.8%

Widely Available:

Gale's Prize Old Ale - London megabrewery (Fullers) - Sherry, molasses, raisin, and yet still dry. Sipping beer. They say "at its best after 20 years of maturing". 9%

Logo-GreatDivideGreat Divide Hibernation Ale - Denver, CO regional brewery - Roast and some smoke character. Brown sugar, dark malt. Northwest hops give a citric bitter finish. 8.1%

Greene King Strong Suffolk - Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England - A blend of two ales, a 12% which is matured for 2 years and a 4.4% fresh beer. Small head. Oak comes through strongly. Vanilla from the oak augments the dark malt flavors. 6%

Marston's Owd Rodger - Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, England - Nicely married. Fully malty with lots of balance. 7.6%

Theakston Old Peculier - Masham, North Yorkshire, England - Butter, lactic, caramel, chocolate. Aged taste. 5.6%

Young's Old Nick - Bedford, England megabrewery - Labeled a Barley Wine but not enough alcohol. One of the most readily available. Can be harsh if not kept. All Fuggles and Goldings. Dark red color. Lots of Crystal malt. 7.2%

Typical 5-gallon (US) recipe

11 lb Pale malt
1 lb Crystal 60L malt
.5 lb Biscuit malt
.25 lb Crystal 120L malt

Adjuncts, Fruit, Spices:
.5 lb Molasses

.75 oz Target hops at start of boil
.5 oz Fuggles for 15 minutes of boil

British Ale yeast


Boil time:
90 minutes

OG / FG:
1067 / 1017

Age for 4 months minimum.

The story of Theakston's Old Peculier

Logo-Theakston-OldPeculierOld Peculier is without doubt the most famous Old Ale and has been since it revived the style by winning Champion Winter Beer of Britain in 2000.

About the name: The title of Peculier of Masham was bestowed on Nigel de Albini by William the Conqueror. A Peculier is a French word for a particular court - the legal kind rather than the "at court" kind. This kickback made Nigel the head honcho around those parts.

The title passed to his heirs, Roger de Mowbay, etc. Roger, as you know (don't you?) was captured during the Crusades and ransomed by the Knights Templar. In gratitude, he gave the Peculier of Masham to the Archbishop of York - who didn't really want the responsibility and freed the town of Masham from the laws involved by this court.

Laws? Yep. Stuff like not going to church, drunkenness, swearing, not having one's children baptized, telling fortunes, getting friendly with Roman Catholic priests. Etc. All the other laws of the land, of course, still stand in Masham - they not being Peculier.

At any rate, Old Peculier has survived ownership by Scottish & Newcastle when the family sold the Theakston brewery in 1983 and benefited from S&N's marketing muscle to send the bottled version to the US and farther. When the Theakston family bought the company back in 2003 they benefited from the overseas popularity and British Isles notoriety of Old Peculier and it has become a mainstay of their new empire.

By the way, family member Paul Theakston didn't want to sell the company and in 1992 set up a rival Black Sheep brewery in Masham which is still going strong, thank you very much. But it doesn't make a Strong Ale. Sigh.

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