Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Perfect Holiday Beer: Old Ale

Sitting around this evening decorating the HolzBrew family Christmas tree and sipping on some Old Ale (North Coast Old Stock Ale). Sounds like a bad thing, right? Despite the name, Old Ale is a very very good thing. The perfect beer to enjoy this time of year sitting around the fireplace.

While not easy to define, because barleyewines and some winter warmers taste similar, old ale generally refers to darker english ales lowly attenuated so there are a high level of residual sugars. Per the name, these beers are typically fermented longer than the average english style ales. The alcohol levels can be anywhere from 7% to 10%.

During the early to mid 1800's brewing was big business in England. Porters and pale ales were being churned out at a quick pace. Typically fully fermented in just a few weeks. This was a change in business plan from brewers who were hoping to turn their inventory over faster. Naturally, it wasn't that easy. These beers with shorter fermentation tasted different. In order to get around public backlash (due to different tasting beer) brewers kept a smaller volume of beer around for a very long time, hence "old ale", and they would blend this beer with the fresh beer to achieve the flavor profile desired by their patrons.

By the 1850s - 60s, porter started to decline in popularity, so brewers started selling "Old Ale" directly to the pubs. These Old Ales sold to the public began to be brewed to their own unique recipes instead the Old Ale that was used for mixing. These beers were typically fermented for a year or more.

These Old ales had another unique quality, a noticeable acidic flavor. Around the year 1900 the yeast responsible for secondary fermentation (while the beer was being stored in casks, for aging) in old ales was identified in the Carlsberg laboratories in Denmark, and given the name Brettanomyces. Which is commonly found in Belgain ales.

Examples of classic english style old ales are Theakston Old Peculier and Thomas Hardy's Ale. Some of my favorite American takes on this style include North Coast Old Stock Ale, Great Divide Hibernation Ale, and Southern Tier Old Man Winter Ale.

Sometimes older is better,


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