Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 19- Strong Ales

27 07 2010

Better Know Your Beer Style had taken a month long hiatus precisely for one reason: it has been very hot here and the idea of even writing about strong ales grossed me out. But tonight is relatively cool and we are on the home stretch, so today we present Category 19 of the BJCP: Strong Ales.

Strong Ales seem relatively generic of a term, especially as it comes hot on the heels of Belgium Strong Ales. In modern terms, strong ales refer to the strongest ales a brewery makes. However, in these days of Imperial Russian Stouts and Double IPAs, a strong ale needs to come from a specific tradition in order to count. In this case, it is English Old Ales: beers designed to be aged.

These beers tend to be higher in gravity (both alcohol and sugars are increased) and will often show some signs of aging–Brett, oxidation and/or earthy, leather-like notes. The increased gravity makes these beers ideal for aging (much like a fine wine).

In England, the term “old ale” is quite common. But in the United States, the term “Winter Warmer” is much more common. These beers are often seasonally available–particularly in the late autumn to late winter. The late Beer Hunter Michael Jackson once described old ales as “… a warming beer of the type that is best drunk in half pints by a warm fire on a cold winter’s night”.

There is some debate as to whether or not the distinction between “old ale” and “barleywine” is true and fast or if the terms can be interchangeable. While the BJCP shows that a barleywine has a higher ABV and higher gravity, Martyn Cornell says that distinction is relatively recent. Traditionally, these strong ales were brewed in English manors by the wealthy aristocracy. The story as to why barleywines were created is a bit fuzzy (possibly because of an attempt to place historical significance to a modern term). Perhaps the English aristocrats, wishing to be more like their French counterparts ordered their butlers to make a wine from local barley to rival that of any French Bordeaux. Or possibly it came out of the English aristocrats wanting to show their disdain for their French counterparts and refusing to drink any French wines at all. Either way, nearly every manor butler had their own recipe for a wine made out of grains.

As is the case with most American attempts at English styles, American brewers began brewing their barleywines with local ingredients. The result is a barleywine that is rich in hoppiness throughout. A distinction has been made between English style barleywines and American barleywine-style ales. It may not be a legal appellation. But it is pretty darn close.

Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 19- Strong Ales

Photo Credit: Bernt Rostad

Sub-Categories: Old Ales, English Barleywines, American Barleywine-style Ales.

Aroma: Malt forward with notes of caramel, dried fruit, grape, nuts, toffee, some warm booziness resembling port or sherry is appropriate. Low to no buttery esters. Often the aroma mellows with age.

Appearance: Light honey to dark russet in color. Carbonation so low, it almost appears still. Slight, dissociating head. May keep “legs” instead of lacing due to high sugar content.

Flavor: Strong malt forwardness although American ales will often have an apparent hop bitterness. Old ales may have an aged quality of Brett as well as some apparent, but not hot, booziness. Taste should be an echo of the nose with notes of nuts, toffee, caramel, dried fruit and medium hop bitterness. All of this mellows with age.

Mouthfeel: Chewy and sticky. Light carbonation to help balance the sweetness. But overall very full-bodied and rich.

Ingredients: Generous amounts of grain. Many of which may be specialty grains. Adjuncts, particularly sugar, are often used to help up ABV. In the case of English barleywines, English and Continental hops are used. While Americans use high alpha American hops. A characterful yeast (usually English or American) is used–preferably one that can withstand high ABV.

Technical Notes:
Original Gravity:
1.060-1.120
Final Gravity: 1.015-1.030
SRM (Malt Color): 8-22
IBUs: 3-120
ABV: 6-12%

Commercial Examples:
Old Ales:
Gale’s Prize Old Ale, Burton Bridge Olde Expensive, Marston Owd Roger, Greene King Olde Suffolk Ale , J.W. Lees Moonraker, Harviestoun Old Engine Oil, Fuller’s Vintage Ale, Harvey’s Elizabethan Ale, Theakston Old Peculier (peculiar at OG 1.057), Young’s Winter Warmer, Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild, Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome, Fuller’s 1845, Fuller’s Old Winter Ale, Great Divide Hibernation Ale, Founders Curmudgeon, Cooperstown Pride of Milford Special Ale, Coniston Old Man Ale, Avery Old Jubilation

English Barleywines: Thomas Hardy’s Ale, Burton Bridge Thomas Sykes Old Ale, J.W. Lee’s Vintage Harvest Ale, Robinson’s Old Tom, Fuller’s Golden Pride, AleSmith Old Numbskull, Young’s Old Nick (unusual in its 7.2% ABV), Whitbread Gold Label, Old Dominion Millenium, North Coast Old Stock Ale (when aged), Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot

American Barleywine-Style Ales: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Great Divide Old Ruffian, Victory Old Horizontal, Rogue Old Crustacean, Avery Hog Heaven Barleywine, Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale, Anchor Old Foghorn, Three Floyds Behemoth, Stone Old Guardian, Bridgeport Old Knucklehead, Hair of the Dog Doggie Claws, Lagunitas Olde GnarleyWine, Smuttynose Barleywine, Flying Dog Horn Dog

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