Old Ales

The old Victorian hotel above the river is magnificent. Our bedroom, complete with a classic four-poster bed, is reached from the bar by an equally impressive wide staircase. So why did I keep bouncing from one side to another? I knew I hadn’t had that much beer to drink, just a couple of pints of bitter and two or three more of a dark ale — and I knew it wasn’t very strong because it was so smooth and slipped down my throat so easily.

The next day I asked the barman a little more about that ale. It turned out that it was Theakston’s Old Peculier, at a little over 6% alcohol by volume (ABV). There were no microbreweries in England in those days and I was used to beers at 4.0% ABV or less. No wonder navigating the staircase had been so difficult!

Old Peculier is a dark, moderately strong, lightly hopped, full-bodied beer, considered by some to be a classic old ale. It remains a classic of today, although its original gravity has been dropped a couple of points, to 1.058 from 1.060.

The Emergence of Old Ale

In the first half of the 18th century, English brewers began move away from long storage of beers. The equation was quite simple — a lot of money could be saved if you got the return on the cost of brewing in 2–3 months, instead of a year or more. So brewers started to produce what they then called “running beers,” which were shipped from the brewery to the pubs after a much shorter storage period than had previously been the case. Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that at first, as this meant a decided change in flavor. One way around this, was to keep smaller amounts of beer for a very long time, and use for blending with fresh beer to get the kind of taste the drinker was looking for. In some cases this was done at the brewery, while in others some aged beer was shipped along with running beer, and blended by the publican himself. There was even a machine invented and patented as far back as 1790, for mixing “mild” and “stale” porter.

In those days these words had a different meaning than they do today. “Mild” simply meant new, while “stale” referred to well-matured beer. Mild stayed around until the present day, although modern mild bears little resemblance to that of early 19th century milds. But the term “stale” did disappear. By the 1850’s, when porter was declining in popularity, some brewers were offering “Old Ales” directly to the public houses. These were beers brewed specifically to be kept for a year or more at the brewery and apparently brewed to their own separate recipes. In other words, they were not meant for use in adjusting the flavor of running beers. These kind of beers later came to be known as stock ales. Aged porters kept for this purpose became known as keeping porters by brewers, and were not normally sold to the public.

Old ales had another significant characteristic — an acidic flavor. In 1890 an English brewing consultant stated that this was a “sub-acid” flavor. Around 1900 the yeast responsible for secondary fermentation in English stock ales was identified in the Carlsberg laboratories in Denmark, and given the name Brettanomyces. This species is responsible for the so-called “horse-blanket” flavor in spontaneously-fermented Belgian lambic beers. However, analysis of old and stock ales, both English and American, carried out by Wahl-Henius around 1880–1900 indicated that they contained significant amounts of lactic acid. This would most likely be the source of the “sub-acid” flavor, and probably came from Lactobacilli in the staves of the wooden storage vessels used in
those days.

Information on 19th century old ales as such is scarce. From those recipes that are available, they were usually brewed to around 1.080 OG, mainly from either all pale malt, or combinations of pale with amber malt. Mashing temperatures were probably on the high side (154 °F or higher) so as to give a dextrinous wort, and a relatively high finishing gravity, around 1.025–1.035.

Modern Old Ales

In 1880 England instituted a tax system based on the original gravity of beers. This made strong beers significantly more expensive to brew than weaker ones. Consequently, from that time there began a decline in average beer strengths. The inevitable result of these factors was that Old Ales as such became much less popular.

By the time I started drinking beer in the late 1950’s, you would occasionally come across the odd draught beers called old ale, but this was often just a marketing trick. Such beers, as they were not old in any sense, and were simply running beers, amounted to nothing more than a slightly stronger than usual mild. There were some genuine old ales, but now they were likely to be only bottle-aged.

A change in this approach came from Eldridge, Pope, a small brewery in Dorset, when in 1968 they introduced Thomas Hardy Ale, commemorating the writer’s death sixty years earlier. Although produced only from pale malts, its high OG of 1.125 resulted in it being a dark amber color, and it was stored at the brewery for a year or so before release. It was originally intended as a one-off, but was successful enough that the company decided to continue it. It was produced as a bottle-conditioned beer, and vintage-dated, with the early bottles recommending on the label that it could be kept for a as much as 25 years before drinking! The important point about this is that Hardy Ale was presented as a beer of distinction, as a result of which it gradually achieved cult status among England’s beer-drinkers. Eldridge, Pope hived off their brewing operation in the 1990’s, and this beer continued to be produced by the now aptly-named Thomas Hardy company, who finally gave up their namesake ale in 2003. It is now brewed by the micro O’Hanlon’s, largely for the American market.

In the early 1970’s came the start of CAMRA, the consumer organization pledged to prevent the disappearance of cask-conditioned ale in Britain. A side effect of this campaign was a renewal of interest in beers of unusual distinction and character. A notable example was that of Old Peculier, which rapidly developed a high reputation. Theakston’s small family brewery, in a misguided attempt to expand rapidly, went through a number of contortions before falling into the hands of Scottish Newcastle, who themselves had by then become the biggest brewers in Britain. The good news about that was that Old Peculier now had a lot of marketing muscle behind it, and became more widely available in Britain and North America. Just this year, the circle was completed, and
the Theakston family bought back
their brewery in Masham, but that’s another story.

All this helped to revive interest in other similar beers, such as Gale’s Old Prize Ale, Robinson’s Old Tom and the related Winter Warmers and Barleywines. The result is that although old ales are only produced in limited quantities, and there are only a relatively small number of commercial versions, there are enough for us to define the style.

These beers should be amber to dark brown in color, with the emphasis on malt character, rather than hop aroma and bitterness, which should be muted. Fruity, estery notes, and some diacetyl can all contribute to the complexity of these beers.

Brewing Old Ales

Pale malt is the main source of fermentable extract, although a mild ale malt would work well, too. We want to emphasize maltiness in this beer, so a relatively high mash temperature of around 154 °F (68 °C) is appropriate. Substituting 15–20% of the pale malt with Munich malt will also help in this respect. This kind of beer works very well with pale malt extract as a base.

To increase the mouthfeel and add a little sweetness, crystal malt is a must. Go for the darker, more caramelized varieties, (from 60–80 °L), but don’t overdo it. We are looking for subtle complexity in this style, and don’t want any flavors sticking out like a sore thumb. For my taste, 1/2 to 1 lb. per 5 gallons is sufficient. For more complexity, and an increase in color, a little roast malt works wonders. For me, chocolate malt works best, adding a slight reddish hue, and a muted roastiness. Black malt is favored by some brewers, but can add some harshness we don’t want in this brew, so must not be overdone. In both cases, I would add no more than 1/4 lb. roast malt.

There are two other candidates for addition here, flaked corn and corn or cane sugar, both being used in Old Peculier. These should only be added at the rate of around 10% of the total grist, and will only increase alcohol and make the beer lighter for a given gravity. The reason why British brewers use these is simply to reduce the nitrogen content of the beer. In other words to lower protein residues, and thus reduce chill-haze. Frankly, I do not think chill-haze is really a problem in a beer of this color, and I do not normally use these adjuncts myself. If you feel the need to add fermentable material in order to hit target gravity, then why not either use malt extract, or a dark sugar. The latter will add a slight rum note, which goes quite well in this type of beer.

When it comes to hopping old ales, we certainly do not want to overdo it. I actually think you want to be in the range 30–40 IBU for bitterness, although the BJCP homebrew contest guidelines give 65 IBU as the top end of the range. Preferably, you want a fairly mild hop, for both bittering and aroma and English Fuggles fit the bill admirably, but can be substituted with Challenger or Northdown.

You simply need a good top-fermenting ale yeast, preferably one which will give some fruity estery flavor to the beer, rather than a so-called “clean” yeast. White Labs WLP002 English Ale, or WLP004 Irish Ale are good, as are Wyeast 1028 London Ale, and 1098 Whitbread. Aim for 65–70 °F for the primary, but with these yeasts, it won’t matter too much if the temperature drifts a little above 70 °F. Properly brewed, an old ale makes an excellent fireside companion in a cold winter. And the next winter. And . . .


(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)

OG = 1.058–1.063 FG = 1.015–1.020
IBU = 30 SRM = 24 ABV = 5.6–6.2%


  • 6.6 lb. (3.0 kg) pale liquid malt extract
  • 1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) dry malt extract
  • 1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) crystal malt (60 °L)
  • 0.25 lb. (114 g) chocolate malt
  • 7.33 AAU UK Fuggles hops (60 mins)
  • (1.5 oz./42 g of 5.0% alpha acids)
  • 0.5 oz (14 g) Fuggles hops (15 mins)
  • Wyeast 1028 (London Ale) or
  • White Labs WLP013 (London Ale) yeast
  • 0.5 cup corn sugar or dried malt extract (for priming)

Step by Step

Add crushed specialty malts to 1 gallon (3.8 L) of water in your brewpot, heat water to about 170 °F (77 °C) and strain off malts. Add water to the “grain tea” to make about 3 gallons (11.4 L) and bring this liquid to a boil. Once it begins boiling, turn off the heat and add the malt extracts, stirring well to ensure the extracts dissolve properly. Bring the wort to a boil and add the bittering hops. Boil for one hour, with flavor hops added for the last 15 minutes. (As an option to increase hop utilization, you can withold 3–4 lbs. (1.4–1.8 kg) of extract until the final 15 minutes of the boil.) Strain, or siphon, the wort off from the hops and add cold water sufficient to obtain the starting gravity of 1.060. Cool the wort to around 70 °F (21 °C), pitch with yeast starter and allow to ferment. After 5–7 days of fermerntation, the final gravity should have been reached. At this point, rack into a glass fermenter. One to two weeks later, rack again, prime with dried malt extract or corn sugar, and rack beer into keg or bottles. Allow to condition for at least three months before drinking. Note that although this is not intended to be a clone as such, this beer should be somewhat similar to Old Peculier — smooth and very drinkable for its strength.

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)

OG = 1.070 FG = 1.018–1.025
IBU = 35 SRM = 21 ABV = 5.9–6.9%


  • 12 lb. (5.5 kg) 2-row pale malt (for example, Maris Otter)
  • 2.0 lb. (0.9 kg) Munich malt
  • 0.5 lb.(0.227 kg) crystal malt (60 °L)
  • 2.0 oz (57 g) chocolate malt
  • 8.0 AAU Willamette hops (90 mins)
  • (1.45 oz/41 g of 5.5% alpha acid)
  • 1.5 oz (43 g) Willamette hops (end of boil)
  • White Labs WLP004 (Irish Ale) or
  • Wyeast 1084 (Irish Ale) yeast
  • 0.5 cup corn sugar or DME (priming)

Step by Step

To ensure a good fermentation, it is best to make a half-gallon starter of the original yeast culture. Three days before brewday, make starter by boiling 0.50 lb. (0.23 kg) of dried malt extract in 0.50 gallons (1.9 L) of water.

Use a single-step infusion mash at 153–155 °F (67–68 °C) for 1–1.5 hours. (Use ~4.6 gallons (17 L) of water at 165 °F (74 °C) for mash in.) Sparge for one hour, with water no hotter than 175 °F (80 °C), until run-off reaches SG 1.010–1.012. (Expect to collect around 7.3 gallons, although this can vary considerably depending on your system.)

Boil the wort for 90 minutes, with bittering hops added after the first foamy head subsides. Add flavor hops as the heat is turned off at the end of the boil.

Adjust wort volume with cold water (if needed), and cool to about 70 °F (21 °C). Pitch with yeast starter and allow to ferment. After 5–7 days, final gravity should have been reached; rack into a glass fermenter. One to two weeks later, rack again, prime with dried malt extract or corn sugar, and rack into keg or bottles. Allow beer to condition for at least three months before drinking.

Issue: September 2004