How To Brew Old Ale

by Steve Thanos | Updated: December 19, 2020

Old Ale can go by many different names; sometimes called winter warmer, stock ale, and even “keeping” ale (which is new to me).

There are Old ales that might like to refer to themselves as barleywines even. No matter what you call it, Old ale is a complex style that deserves our attention.

As famous beer writer Michael Jackson once said of Old Ale, “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.”

The Complexity of Old Ales

A typical English beer drinker before the Industrial Revolution had a connection with Old ale. It’s a style that is stored in oak for a year or more. It has an astringent character from the tannins in the wood and being exposed to bacteria such as lactobacillus.

Add in some oxidation and occasionally some brettanomyces and in the end you have a tart beer that is rather funky with complex flavors that may take time to develop and acquire a taste for this style of beer. 

Blending

Time went on and new technologies and conditions for beer improved. Even though fresh beers were consistently being produced, the desire for the taste of old ale stuck. Brewers would age a portion of the beer in wood and blend with fresh beer to add complexity to their batches.

Any of the aged beer that was not blended was packaged and sold off as old ale. This tradition stuck and the style became known as a relatively strong beer with a malt-heavy backbone. In Britain today, there are two types of Old ales in pubs.

There are some that are weaker draught ones at around 4.5% and stronger ones that are ranging from 6-8% or more. 

Style Profile for Old Ale

Appearance

Due to the nature of this style’s brewing process, its characteristics are wide-ranging. Aging and oxidation can significantly darken the color of the beer. Color ranges from light amber to dark reddish-brown.

Beer can be quite clear, but opaque of aged. The head should be cream to light tan in color and will be mostly small and quick to dissipate. 

Aroma

The aroma is malty, sweet with hints of fruity esters. Dried caramel, nut, toffee, alcohol, and molasses are all common to the style.

Oxidation notes may be present. Aging will eliminate all or much of the hop aroma.  

Flavor

The taste of this beer should be the malt complexity. Molasses-like, nutty, and caramel-like complexities really shine. Fruit esters may also be present and take on a vinous quality.

Chocolate and roasty characters may be present, but should be low. Alcohol is noticeable but not overwhelming. 

Mouthfeel

Low to mid carbonation, depending on the age of the beer. It can be rather heavy on the palate, almost chewy. Alcohol warmth should be noticable. 

Food Pairing

When it comes to pairing an Old ale with food, honey-baked ham, pork chops, Porterhouse steak, roasted lamb are places to start. Also, Shepherd’s Pie and bread pudding can pair nicely here. 

Tips for Brewing your own Old Ale

Grain

Since the style is a traditional English style, British pale malt would be appropriate. Maris Otter is a solid choice. As specialty malts go, start off with darker crystal malts, keep at around 10-20% of the grist. This will add some mouthfeel and maltiness.

A small amount of roast and chocolate malt can be added for color and complexity; show restraint when adding these. Adjuncts such as molasses, dark sugar, maze, and flaked barley are all common for the style. If adding these adjuncts, keep it below 10% of the total grain bill. 

Hops

English hops such as Fuggles, should be considered when brewing an Old ale. The hops will be used for bittering and then also a later addition should be added for aroma. 

Yeast

London Ale Wyeast #1082 and Ringwood Ale Wyeast #1187 would be good choices. Also, look for yeast that produce interesting fruity esters to pair well with the style. Follow the temperature recommendations with any yeast that you pick. 

Old Ale the By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 10 – 22 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.060 – 1.090 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.015 – 1.022 FG
  • IBU Range: 30 – 60
  • ABV Range: 6.0 – 9.0%

Martin Keen’s Old Ale Recipe

Grain

83%          11 lbs       Maris Otter      

  6 %          12 oz        Crystal 45      

  2 %           4 oz         Special Roast

  2 %           3 oz         Black Patent Malt

  7 %           1 lb          Candi Syrup D-90

Hops

  2 oz         Fuggles – Boil 60 min

  1 oz          Fuggles  – Boil 10 min

Yeast

1.0 pkg   London Ale Yeast Wyeast Labs #1028

Mash at 152°F (66°C) for 60 mins

Boil for 60 mins 

Transcript: Today I am brewing the somewhat complex style of old ale. It’s a beer style that’s malt forward, slightly sweet, and may have some tones in there of dark fruit. And I’m going to brew this one by experimenting with an overnight mash.

I’m Martin Keen, and I’m taking the Homebrew Challenge to brew 99 beer in 99 weeks. And today’s brew day is actually going to be split across two separate days.

Old Ale is the beer style that originates from strong beer held in casks for an extended period of time, sometimes a year or more. During that period, the beer would start to take on some of the characteristics of the wooden casks itself, plus a little bit of oxidation, which would lead to some of these dark fruit flavors.

I don’t have any casks on hand and I’m not planning on deliberately oxidizing my beer, but I’m still going to attempt to brew a beer that will generate some of those same characteristics.

Now let’s talk about the different options we have for an overnight mash specifically with a system like the one I’m using. This is from claw hammer supply, and it’s effectively a brew in the bag system.

Now, the way this works has in here, I have a grain basket. I put my grains in that basket. Then I add the water. The water comes out a port at the bottom of this kettle here, go through a pump where it’s re-circulated back to the top, or it comes out through spray nozzle at the top. And that way the wort is continually passing through the grain at a specified temperature.

Now I’ve been thinking about different ways that I can perform an overnight mash using a system like this.

Now option one is just do a normal mash, but just keep it running for a lot longer than normal. So start to use the pump to recirculate and use my temperature controller here to maintain temperature.

Um, I don’t really like option number one because it means running my pump unattended for hours and hours at a time, seems like there’s the potential for stuff to go wrong with that. So I’m not going to just leave this running for like 12 hours.

Option two would be to get the mash to the desired temperature and then just shut everything down. If you happen to have something you can use for insullation, you even try insulating the mash tun. But no matter what, if the heating element isn’t running, this is eventually going to lose heat over time.

And once the mash reaches a temperature below about 143 Fahrenheit or 62 Celsius, you’re going to see very little sugar conversion at that point.

So we’re really sort of doing like a, a step mash in reverse by letting this cool down over time. But yeah, that’s an option.

So then there’s option three and this is the option that I’m going to pick. So what this option is all about is not using any of the recirculation capabilities of this system at all. I’m literally just going to have water in here that is kept at a certain temperature using the heating element and the temperature controller.

So I’m going to set the temperature controller to my mash temperature and just leave it at that. So there’s no pump and no recirculation.

Okay. So four ingredients. We’re going to build a beer here with a original gravity, we hope of 1.068. See how this works out. Uh, that should give a beer around 7%. ABV.

Now the basemalt for this beer is Maris Otter.

Then I’m going to add in some sugar. Now you can add in something like molasses or treecul, I’m going to use Belgium candy syrup, specifically D-90. Now this doesn’t go into the mash of course, but this will make up about 8% of the fermentable ingredients in this beer.

So if you’ll bring a five gallon batch, that would be one of these, which is one pound. I’m also going to be adding in Crystal 45 at 6% and special roast at 2%, and then to balance out all of this sugar. Well then I’m also going to add between 1-2% of black patent malt.

So the grains that in recirculation is off, but I do have the heating element on, and I can see on the controller here, it’s just pulsing the heat light every now and again, just to maintain the temperature, which I’ve set to 152 Fahrenheit or 67 Celsius.

So that concludes my involvement with the mash today. I’m just going to let the temperature controller worry about keeping this at 152 and a check on it tomorrow.

It’s the next morning. Now I’ve been mashing for about 12 hours and take a look at that temperature 152. Now it may be slightly misleading to imply that I just left this for 12 hours and just walked in for the first time. Now I did check on it a few times. Um, but actually it has been maintaining the temperature really pretty well. It’s only ever deviated a couple of degrees at any point.

So now what I’m going to do is I’m going to remove the grains and take a pre-boil gravity reading. BeerSmith tells me to expect a pre boil gravity of 1.050 for my actual temperature adjusted pre boil, gravity, 1.056.

For hops, I am using fuggle hops, both as bittering and aroma. So at 60 minutes at the top of the boil, I’m going to put in enough, fuggle hops to get to about 32 IBU. That is two bags of hops, two one ounce bags. If you’re brewing five gallons and with 10 minutes to go, that’s been, I will add one other bag of fuggle hops, and this will contribute about six IBUs.

With 15 minutes to go. This is when I’m adding in. My Belgium candy syrup. That’s D-90.

The beer is coolled and in my bucket and the original gravity ended up coming in at 1.069. I was aiming for 1.068. So I’ve basically hit my numbers with very little effort.

Now, the yeast I’m using for this is London ale yeast. This is Wyeast 1028. And this is a good choice because it has good attenuation. So it should be able to handle this beer. Remember, this is going to be about 7% when it’s done.

You know, I really enjoy these little process things that just had a bit of flexibility to the brew day. The fact that I was able to heat up some water, dumped the grains in set the temperature controller and just walk away all within 15 minutes, makes it very convenient.

And then I can just come back at some point later, whenever I feel like it and deal with the boil.

But of course the proof is in the pudding. So let’s see how this beer actually turns out.

Lauren, you ready to try some old ale? Yeah. Yeah. It’s old ale that’s not very old. It’s a month old. Uh, okay. So this beer style that I mentioned, it’s got a very broad number of sort of characteristics can be quite light, can be quite dark.

What do you think on the aroma of this one? The look of it right? About that. Stay in it. How many beers have you done? Okay. By the look of it, as I see, um, is it’s really dark, but I can see like a red tint to it. It’s really like, hold it up.

So smells weird. Smells weird? Okay. That’s a technical descriptor, is it? Yeah, smells kind of like, elderberries like, I’m not 100% positive, but I know elderberries smell like, but I think it’s this. Well, yeah, I think there are some esters you’re picking up on there.

Um, along with quite a bit of malt too, let’s see what we get with the taste then. Okay. It tastes like the elderberry smell and also tastes a bit like licorice. Beers that tastes like this. Um, I find over time change quite a lot in taste.

So I’ve had some Belgium quads, but tasted quite similar to this when they were young. And then over time they sort of develop more dark fruit kind of flavors. And I suspect that with a bit of age, that licorice sort of elderberry flavor is going to develop into something a little bit different.

My impression with this is, like the Belgium quads when I tasted these at this stage, is that this needs to be put away somewhere and left for a few months. Dark room. Yeah. Yep. Exactly. And to age it.

So I, it is right now it’s drinkable, but I wouldn’t say it’s really going to be one of my favorites. Yeah, I agree. But I think with a bit of time, this one really could live up to its name of Old Ale.

And it’s not old enough. It’s not old enough. It it’s definitely got a complex taste to it. Right? Yeah. It doesn’t taste mature to me now. So take a look in the description for the recipe, the beer kit and so forth.

And next week we will be looking at another dark strong beer that is best aged. So we’ll see how that one turns out. But in the meantime, cheers!

I am the former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.