Brewing the Famed Gale’s Prize Old Ale

I’ve always loved the history of beer. The stories of breweries that have come and gone and fortunes won and lost. Historians, such as Martyn Cornell, write about the fascinating history of brewers and beers that are long lost. Reading about these historic beers makes me wish that I could have been there to taste some of these long-lost beers in their heyday. Of course, there are some historic beers still brewed today, due in large part to the passion of dedicated brewers.

One such beer is Gale’s Prize Old Ale. George Gale & Co., Ltd. was founded in 1847, when Richard Gayle purchased the Ship and Bell Inn in Horndean, Hampshire, England. The brewery’s rich history includes award-worthy beers, fires, and unfortunate tragedy when one head brewer died by suicide drowning in a vat of beer. It was the next head brewer, William Barton Mears, who in the early 1920s created their most expensive beer, Gale’s Prize Old Ale. If this tidbit of brewery history intrigues you, I urge you to check out Martyn’s work online and in print. His stories of brewing history are fascinating.

Fast forward 80 years (late 2005) and Gale’s was sold to Fuller’s Brewery. If anything was to kill off an expensive beer like this, that would be it. Thankfully, Fuller’s former Director of Brewing, John Keeling, rose to the challenge and kept the beer alive, launching Fuller’s version in 2007 and another in 2008.

I’ve been lucky enough to taste some past vintages of Gale’s Prize Old Ale. Some were very sour and lambic-like and some far softer with more residual malt and less funk. Overall, the beer was usually packaged at over 9% ABV, had a deep mahogany color and notes of apples, rum, raisins, oranges, almonds, and varying levels of lambic or Flanders character. 

The original batches of Gale’s Prize Old Ale were matured in wood. The wood and its complex collection of microorganisms would have developed a funky Brettanomyces character and sourness, with the level of sourness limited by the higher alcohol of the beer (9% ABV at brewing). With Gale’s Brewery shuttered by Fuller’s in 2006, there was no way to carry on the wood aging in the original vessels. When John Keeling brewed the first batch of Gale’s Prize Old Ale at Fuller’s, he knew it would not be the same beer without the myriad organisms present in the original. His answer was to use the solera method, where a portion of the beer and its complex mix of organisms from the previous batch is kept and mixed with the fresh beer. After an appropriate time where the complex flavors develop, the blend is released, retaining a portion for mixing with a future batch. This keeps the organisms alive, ensuring their complex flavors exist in every batch. In this way, the progeny of those organisms present in the brewery during the reign of King George V (1920s) were still alive and well in the batches of Gale’s Prize Old Ale that Keeling brewed in the 2000s.

Unfortunately for beer lovers, but fortunate for John Keeling, he retired in 2018. While he left a legacy of fantastic beers, kindness, and generosity to professional brewers and homebrewers alike, he was no longer there to champion the need to brew Gale’s Prize Old Ale. Luckily, Henry Kirk was a brewer at Fuller’s and a passionate advocate for historic beers. He took up the torch and kept insisting to the new owners of Fuller’s (Asahi Brewing) that another batch of Gale’s Prize Old Ale be brewed. He did not want to see such a historic beer disappear from the world. He understood what would be lost if the torch was not carried on. Eventually, in 2021, he won out. They agreed to allow him to brew it at Dark Star Brewing (also owned by Fuller’s/Asahi), where he was the Head Brewer. A portion of the beer from the last John Keeling batch was still held at Fuller’s, more than a decade later, and it was transferred to a tank at Dark Star, in Partridge Green, West Sussex. Henry began his preparations to brew.

Henry Kirk adds hops to the boil in the first batch of Gale’s Prize Old Ale brewed in nearly 15 years at Dark Star Brewing Co. in Partridge Green, West Sussex.

I was very lucky my friend Henry mentioned to me that he would be brewing Gale’s Prize Old Ale once again. I immediately invited myself and my friend Neil Spake to join the brew day at Dark Star Brewing. I wasn’t going to miss the history-making (and saving) brew day, which Henry understood.

Neil and I arrived at Dark Star Brewing and after a brief tour of the brewery, we jumped into the specifics of the brew. Present was Dark Star’s Head Brewer Henry Kirk and Anthony Smith, Fermentation and Maturation Team Leader at Griffin Brewery. Anthony, whom I met when I did a collaboration brew at Fuller’s, worked at Gale’s Brewery for two years before the sale to Fuller’s and had firsthand knowledge of how Gale’s Prize Old Ale and other beers were brewed at Gale’s.

The brew and malt bill were relatively straightforward. There was no waving of magic wands, regardless of what movies might tell you about the ways of England. The recipe targeted an OG of 1.095 and an ABV of 9%. The mash consisted of high-quality British Maris Otter pale malt from Simpson’s, 10% torrified wheat, and a 55-lb. (25-kg) sack of black malt in a 34-barrel (1,050-gallon/40-hL) brew. Once the wort was in the kettle and boiling, we set about breaking up 550 lbs. (250 kg) of invert #1 sugar, adding it to the kettle in chunks. I felt honored that Henry asked me to do the calculations for exactly how much invert sugar was needed to achieve the correct end of boil gravity. (As a side note, Henry is wonderful to do a collaboration with. When we collaborated on a blackberry Gose at Fuller’s, he trusted me on some important parts of the brew day, and I will always be thankful for that experience.)

The 34-barrel batch of Gale’s Prize Old Ale included 550 lbs. (250 kg) of invert #1 sugar that required breaking up into chunks before adding to the boil.

Hops were equal portions of Goldings and Fuggle, half the charge we added at the beginning of the boil and half at the end, with a goal of approximately 45 IBUs. We washed the sticky off from cutting up the sugar and headed to the local pub with Henry and Anthony for lunch and chatted about beer and brewing. 

When we returned, Neil and I were shown the 34-barrel tank that contained the beer from the previous 2008 brew. This was the solera of a beer they held for 14 years, containing yeasts and bacteria carried forward from 100 years of brewing. We looked sheepishly at each other, glasses in hand. We poured ourselves generous tastes from the sample valve and were held speechless. The balance of malty richness, bold fruity esters, complex fermentation, and a subtle background acid note makes you pause as you sip, cataloging all the diverse flavors and aromas. We were enjoying a beer with 100 years of brewing history behind it. We sipped, looked at each other, sipped again, sipped some more. Not a word was spoken. Our taste buds were working overtime and there was no brain bandwidth available for discussion yet. When we finished our samples, we smiled, did something like a verbal high five, and got back to work. 

During knockout, the discussion of oxygen and fermentation temperature came up. As the original gravity (OG) was high for British yeast, and Andrew mentioned that historically Gale’s added oxygen around the 12- to 24-hour mark after pitching, we decided on a second dose of oxygen early
the following day. 

Anthony had brought the pitch of Gale’s yeast with him from the Fuller’s lab. He mentioned that the Gale’s yeast pitch is composed of three genetically different strains. One yeast strain favors the top and the other two the middle of the beer during fermentation. While we can’t verify it, Neil and I heard later that the Gale’s strain was originally sourced from the Brickwoods main brewery in Portsmouth, which was bought by Whitbread in 1971. Of course, over time the yeast may have diverged in character from its original source, so that does not mean using a Whitbread strain will provide the same result. It is, however, the best recommendation I have for cloning this beer at home.

The yeast from Gale’s Brewery, which includes three genetically different strains, is pitched into the fermenters at Dark Star Brewing. Post-fermentation, the batch would be blended with the 2008 brew containing yeasts and bacteria carried forward for more than a century.

As in past batches, after fermentation was complete the beer was blended with the previous held over batch, merging the new beer into the historic microbiome. After a few months of maturation, the beer was packaged into 500-mL (16.9-oz.) wax-dipped bottles. The beer was not filtered or pasteurized, so the bottles do contain the yeast and other organisms. This batch has a wonderful complexity, layered into a malty background. The tartness and funk are present, but subdued. It will increase over time but should be limited by the high ABV. The first 2,500 bottles sold out in a heartbeat and another 2,500 were packaged. If you are lucky enough to find some, buy it. This is a beer that can age well for decades, so buy some to enjoy now and more to store for special occasions. I know that is what I will do. 

Unfortunately, shortly after the beer was brewed, Asahi, the owner of Gale’s, Dark Star, Fuller’s, and Meantime decided to shut the Dark Star facility and lay off the staff. The Dark Star production was moved to the Meantime facility. It is a terrible shame. Passionate, clever brewers such as Henry Kirk don’t grow on trees. It was his passion and drive that revived and saved Gale’s Prize Old Ale again. The market forces that have shuttered tens of thousands of breweries and lost untold numbers of unique and special beers always seem to win out eventually. 

Neil and I are very proud to have played a small role in brewing this beer again. We both urge you to never miss an opportunity to speak up for historic beers and to buy them. Send emails to the few remaining historic breweries, letting them know you will support them for something other than the latest trend social media deems important. Otherwise, all we will have left is the latest, greatest, hazy-glitter-fruit-pastry beer being brewed just once this week. 

Who knows if Gale’s Prize will ever be released again commercially; however, as we wait and hope, you can also replicate it at home. We’ve provided a clone recipe that best represents the process we took to brew this beer at Dark Star. And if you are able to get your hands on a bottle, the dregs should be used. Maybe you can keep them alive yourself in a barrel for the next hundred years?

Making Your Own Invert Sugar (sidebar)

Invert sugar is made by splitting sucrose into glucose and fructose. This makes invert sugar easier to ferment and provides a different character in the finished beer. In addition, invert sugar comes in many forms that provide additional color and flavor to a beer. Brewers traditionally indicate the color of invert sugar with a number. The higher the number, the darker the invert sugar and increased flavors like caramel. #3 is around 60–70 SRM (120–140 EBC), #2 is around 30–35 SRM (60–70 EBC), and #1 is around 12–16 SRM (25–35 EBC). 

Making invert sugar at home is simple, but you must watch over the process to avoid excessive color development, burning, and/or crystallizing. 

I prefer to use demerara sugar, but you could use any “raw” sugar or even plain cane sugar. I have found demerara sugar at my local homebrew shop and grocery store. 

Carbon filter and bring to a boil 1 pint (473 mL) of water in a heavy saucepan. Shut off the heat and slowly add 1.5 lbs. (680 g) sugar, stirring as you go. Add 1⁄4 tsp. (~1 g) citric acid powder. You can use other food-grade acids such as lactic, cream of tartar, or lemon juice, but I prefer the flavor and ease of use of citric acid. The goal is to drop the pH of the sugar solution to between 3 and 4 pH, which helps the inversion process. 

Insert a clean candy thermometer into the sugar solution and turn the heat back on. You want to slowly raise the temperature to at least 236 °F (113 °C). I target 240 °F (116 °C). It is OK to go a little over 240 °F (116 °C) but keep it below 250 °F (121 °C). Keep in mind that reducing the temperature of the sugar solution is difficult, so be careful about applying too much heat. You can take your time, so slower heat additions are better.

After 15 to 20 minutes at 240 °F (116 °C) inversion should be complete and you have invert #1. You can let it slowly cool and add to a mason jar for storage. To work your way up to #2 or #3, just keep going. It takes around two hours for #2 and three hours for #3. It might take more or less time, depending on the pot, the humidity, etc. Some people raise the temperature to more quickly develop color and flavor but watch out for burning your sugar. Even the tiniest bit of burnt sugar will ruin the flavor. Also, if you push for a very dark syrup, it might end up quite thick. In that case you can very carefully add back a little boiling water to thin it back and make it easier to pour on brew day.

Some people recommend adding a little corn syrup or Lyle’s Golden Syrup at the start to aid in preventing crystallization. I haven’t found it to be necessary if you are careful about the temperature and you make sure to avoid letting any of the syrup cling to the sides of the pot and dry out. Use caution, though, as once one crystal forms, many follow.

Gale’s Prize Old Ale clone

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.092  FG = 1.017 
IBU = 46  SRM = 19–25 (depending on the invert sugar used) ABV = 9.8%

13.5 lbs. (6.1 kg) English pale ale malt 
2.86 lbs. (1.3 kg) #3 invert sugar (50 °L) or #1 invert sugar (10 °L)\
22 oz. (624 g) torrified wheat 
4.6 oz. (132 g) English black malt (600 °L)
6.3 AAU Fuggle hops (60 min.) (1.25 oz./35 g at 5% alpha acids)
6.3 AAU U.K. Goldings hops (60 min.) (1.25 oz./35 g at 5% alpha acids)
1.25 oz. (35 g) Fuggle hops (0 min.)
1.25 oz. (35 g) U.K. Goldings hops (0 min.)
1⁄2 tsp. yeast nutrients (15 min.)
1⁄2 tsp. Irish moss (15 min.)
White Labs WLP017 (Whitbread II Ale) Wyeast 1099 (Whitbread Ale), or SafAle S-04 yeast
Dregs from a bottle of Gale’s Prize Old Ale, White Labs WLP665 (Flemish Ale Blend), or Wyeast 3763 (Roeselare Ale Blend)
1⁄2 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
I use Simpsons Finest Pale Ale Maris Otter or Golden Promise as my base grain, but other malts of a similar nature should work well. Simpsons black malt is my preference, but any high-quality English black malt will do. 

Mill the grains and dough-in targeting a mash of around 1.5 quarts of water to 1 pound of grain (a liquor-to-grist ratio of about 3:1 by weight) and a mash temperature of 152 °F (67 °C). Hold the mash at 152 °F (67 °C) until enzymatic conversion is complete. Infuse the mash with near-boiling water while stirring or with a recirculating mash system raise the temperature to mash out at 168 °F (76 °C). Sparge slowly with 170 °F (77 °C) water, collecting wort until the pre-boil kettle volume is around 6.25 gallons (23.7 L) and the gravity is 1.062 before the addition of the invert sugar. If you should come up short on the pre-boil gravity, you can top it off with some dried malt extract. 

The total wort boil time is 90 minutes. This helps concentrate the wort and aids in the development of flavor compounds. You should check the gravity of your wort before you add your first hop addition. If the boil is not tracking according to plan, keep boiling until you are at the right gravity, and then add your first hop addition. The first hop addition comes with 60 minutes remaining in the boil. 

The historic beers were brewed with invert #3, but Henry Kirk was only able to source invert #1 for the 2022 batch. The darker, richer #3 adds more caramel and fig notes after fermentation. I think either works well, but if you can source (or make your own) #3 then use that. You can add the invert sugar at any time, but I like to add it with approximately 30 minutes left in the boil. If your invert sugar is in block form, cut it up before adding to the kettle and you may want to turn off the burner and stir to ensure the sugar dissolves without burning. If you cannot find invert sugar at your local homebrew shop, try making your own using the instructions in the sidebar on page 31. Add Irish moss or other kettle finings along with some yeast nutrients with 15 minutes left in the boil.

When the boil is complete, chill the wort to 68 °F (20 °C) and aerate thoroughly. Due to the high gravity of this beer, it is important to pitch enough yeast. Check the supplier’s calculators to determine the correct rate. Generally, you will need two packages of liquid or dry yeast for this beer. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C) to start, raising the temperature gradually to 70 °F (21 °C) for the last 1⁄3 of fermentation. When finished, carbonate the beer to approximately 1.8 volumes. 

Post fermentation you can add the dregs from a bottle of Gale’s Prize Old Ale, if you are lucky enough to purchase one. The bottles are not pasteurized or sterile filtered and contain the original organisms. If you cannot get your hands on a bottle, you could add a mixed culture such as White Labs WLP665 (Flemish Ale Blend) or Wyeast 3763 (Roeselare Ale Blend). While these cultures can produce noticeable souring when added to wort, when added to a beer already beyond 9% ABV the effect should be slower and muted. Over time the beer should develop nice dryness, a slight tartness, and some notes from the Brettanomyces. This process will also increase the carbonation over time as the longer chain sugars are consumed, so you want to take that into account if you add any priming sugar.

Extract with grains version: Substitute the pale ale malt and torrified wheat with 9.25 lbs. (4.2 kg) Maris Otter liquid malt extract and 19 oz. (540 g) wheat dried malt extract. 

Always choose the freshest extract that fits the beer style instead of focusing on the brand name. If you cannot get fresh liquid malt extract, it is better to use an appropriate amount of dried malt extract (DME) instead. 

Mill or coarsely crack the specialty malt and place loosely in a grain bag. Steep the bag in about 1 gallon (4 L) of water at roughly 170 °F (77 °C) for about 30 minutes. Lift the grain bag out of the steeping liquid and rinse with warm water. Allow the bag to drip into the kettle for a few minutes while you add the malt extract. Do not squeeze the bag. Add enough water to the steeping liquor and malt extract to make a pre-boil volume of 6.25 gallons (23.7 L) and the gravity is 1.062 before the addition of the invert sugar. Stir thoroughly to help dissolve the extract and bring to a boil.

The total wort boil time is 60 minutes. Follow the boil, fermentation, and packaging instructions for the all-grain recipe.

Issue: May-June 2023