Also referred to as “stock” ales, old ales are intense beers with high levels of dextrins (in reference to the beer’s overall thickness), that create a rather full-bodied, malty beer. Originated in England, they were often transferred into vats to mature. These beers were historically held at the brewery as a compliment to English mild ales. Typically, the proprietor would blend the stronger old ale with the mild ale according to how the particular customer liked it.
Usually rich and dark amber-to-almost black in color, old ales can vary quite a bit depending on its age, alcohol level, and the brand itself. Stronger versions may closely resemble port wine while vintage examples can display low levels of oxidation. In the past, brewers would inoculate a portion of the beer with Brettanomyces to age for extended periods of time to achieve a subtle acidic character, but that is, for the most part, rarely done anymore.
Universally heavy on the malt (including sweetness), old ales can display an array of fruity esters that can range from dried fruits to heavier caramel/molasses and nutty notes. Because of this, bitterness is usually not present, but can be depending again on the beer’s age. They can even display many similarities to a good Port or Sherry with vinous characteristics. Hop characteristics should be non-existent due to the beer’s lengthy aging process but can be present in very young examples. Since their average alcohol by volume (ABV) range can vary from 4-12%, the stronger examples express some rather potent alcohol expressions, though ideally should never be overwhelming. Medium to full-bodied, they can tend to get a bit thick, almost chewy with relatively low to medium (at best) carbonation levels.
A lot of people tend to get old ales and barleywines confused since they tend to have very similar profiles and characteristics. One helpful thing to keep in mind is that a barleywine is typically stronger and richer. While Old Ales can tend to be very strong and rich too, they usually always will be aimed towards a lighter, yet sweeter beer with balanced malt profiles. “It should be a warming beer of the type that is best drunk in half pints by a warm fire on a cold winter’s night” – Michael Jackson.
In the past, I have always gone back to stating that a huge trend these days in the world of beer is Barrel aging. Typically using previously used bourbon, brandy, whiskey, red wine barrel to further age and give the beer additional dynamic and unique aroma and flavor profiles. Old ales are another excellent candidate in experimenting with this trend and have resulted in some excellent results. (Some of which I have included in my list below).
Listed below are some of my personal favorites for the style:
Adam is top fermented and cold conditioned to give it a rich and mellow smoothness. The unique garnet color is derived from specially roasted barley, and the intense hop profile is provided by the use of only the finest whole hop flowers.
10% ABV - 50 IBUs / 12% ABV / 10% ABV
The winner of the gold winner in the Olde Ale catagory at the World Expo of beer in 2010. This ale has an intense sweet caramel malt flavor and aroma that develops into a toffee/toasted marsh mellow like character.
North Coast Old Stock Ale / North Coast Old Stock Cellar Reserve
Like a fine port, Old Stock Ale is intended to be laid down. With an original gravity of over 1.100 and a generous hopping rate, Old Stock Ale is well-designed to round-out and mellow with age. It’s brewed with classic Maris Otter malt and Fuggles and East Kent Goldings hops, all imported from England.
North Coast Brewing’s Old Stock Ale Cellar Reserve is a special batch of its award-winning Old Stock Ale. The vintage 2009 brew has been aged for 18 months in oak Bourbon barrels and is one of the most exciting beers we’ve produced since we began our barrel-aging program back in 1998. Old Stock Cellar Reserve is bottled in a distinctively decorated 500 ml bottle with a cork and wire finish and is available in a limited number of distributors in select markets.
12.5% ABV - 36 IBUs / 13.6% ABV
Think classic seafaring ports, local pubs, and weathered old fishermen. This old ale is brewed with molasses and an insane focus on the malt bill, then oak-aged. The result is a strong, rich, malty delight that’s deceptively smooth and drinkable.
9.8% ABV - 50 IBUs
There are always new beers in the style being made and many I have yet to try, so by all means, this is not an exhaustive list, but if you can get access to some of these listed, I highly recommend giving them a try!