Old Ales, Barleywines, and The Potential Uselessness Of Calling A Beer Either One

Don’t get me wrong – I truly enjoy the history behind various beer “styles”.  After all, this is a beverage with an unbelievable family tree.  All of those wonderful detours, double backs, side streets and near dead ends that a particular kind of beer has taken as it has woven its way through history can, for some, add a deep level of appreciation for what’s in the glass today.  And obviously, I’m not alone.  There are websites and books dedicated to the history of beer, and countless conversations between beer lovers are held time and time again, attempting to recall the paths a particular style has taken throughout the years, often and appropriately held over a beer or two at the bar.

But much caution should always be applied to any individual story, or more specifically, any definition, about a particular kind of beer.  Take the descriptions which are often found on beer websites for example.  It seems only natural that if one is interested in a certain “style”, that the research about it might start with one of these quickly and easily found summaries.  There’s really nothing wrong with this at all, they attempt to give a very to the point synopsis of what to expect, (very) generally speaking, of a kind of beer.  But just as important as it is to remember that within each “style”, as defined on any particular website or in any book, there is sometimes enough variation and overlapping with other “styles” to fill the Grand Canyon, it seems also just as important to think of those definitions as more like snapshots, and pretty fuzzy ones at that, of how a beer might be like – today.

As a matter of fact, the further back in history you explore one “style” of beer or another, the hazier those pictures become.  Again, this is all well and fine – those write ups about a particular style are certainly not meant to be an end all, be all description.  After all, how could anyone expect that from a short paragraph that is often entirely made up of phrases such as: “…may range from low to high…”, “might vary from pitch black to a light brown”, and “can be light to medium…”.  After all, beer is just too difficult to nail down with any one hard line description.  But as you turn each page of beer history over, you can begin to truly understand that the attempt to corral beer into specific groups seems more of a modern invention.  It also begins to help make sense of how beer lovers in the United States are some of the only ones in the world with a fascination of categorizing beer at all.  In other areas of the world, and though this might be a little too simplistic, each beer, instead of being labeled as one specific type or another, has often been just…beer.

I had no idea just how true this all was until the colder weather started to arrive.  You can say what you want about the unfair matching of beer “styles” to a particular season, but darn it, when there’s snow blowing around outside, I want a big time stout – or similar – to help brace against the cold.  For me, this means sipping on a “barleywine” or what’s sometimes labeled as an “old ale”.  Look up the definitions of these two beer “styles”, and sure, you’ll find that within each there is plenty of room given for variation from one to another.  But ultimately, each beer gets slapped with a label as either one or the other, and it’s this very labeling that tends to set up an expectation that they are two different animals.  (Anyone want to get into yet another stout and porter debate?)  And sure, if you taste only a few of each, you can probably find plenty of tasting points that separate the beers.  But on a greater scale, there seems to be plenty of blurring of lines between the two.  Just look into many on line craft beer forums about the two and you’ll see there is plenty of discussion about how the qualities of these two supposedly different kinds of beers often crossover, and how the aromas, flavors and the like can be exceedingly similar.

So what descriptors do most often turn up?  Take a look at these descriptions:

“Fruity intense malts…raisins black currants…racy sharp alcohol characteristics”

“Alcoholic intense fruits…dominate fruits”

“Raisin or prune…malty background”

All three of the above sets of descriptions were pulled from the internet, the first two from the write ups of Barleywines and Old Ales on BeerAdvocate.com and the third from a 2009 article about Old Ales from AllAboutBeer.com.  In that same AllAboutBeer.com article, the author states “The line between [the] sibling styles old ale and barley wine is blurry at times.”  To be sure, plenty of similarities exist, as the umbrella that covers these “styles” seems to be an enormous one.  If you do want to examine them as labeled, the beers that are labeled as Old Ales (a beer “style” born in England) and those that are labeled “English Barleywines” often seem to have the most overlap, as you might expect, from a purely geographical standpoint.  Those called “American Barleywines” are perhaps the ones hanging out on the edge of the very large periphery, but again, as one can see above, the descriptors used to identify beers within each of these so called “style” groups are often very similar.

Historically speaking, differences do often point out that old ales had a slightly musty character (or what is sometimes referred to these days as a “barnyard” type flavor), apparently due to the natural presence of Brettanomyces yeast in the casks used to age the beer.  While some modern reincarnations of old ales are brewed with both of these to more closely resemble the truly old, old ale, most do not.  “English Barleywines”, with the biggest likelihood of crossover characteristics, may be slightly sweeter.  And “American Barleywines”, while sharing many of those same characteristics as both, are often beers that feature a greater hop presence.  Nevertheless, these certainly are three “styles” that feature a fair amount of crossover qualities, so why are they separated to begin with?

In a very detailed and highly interesting blog article about the relationship between old ales and barleywines, Martyn Cornell, an award winning writer and a leading authority on the development of British beer, referred to late 19th century British brewery advertisements that seem to draw a distinction between a “mild” ale and an “old” ale based not on their original recipe, but only on whether the (same) beer had been aged or not.  Today, we still recognize English “Mild” Ales, and also “Old Ales”, the ale that I tend to love when the weather gets chilly, as two different beers, according to Cornell’s research it seems as if the two were likely the same – “old” meant just that – the beer had simply been aged, but the two started out as the very same beer.  Cornell writes, “If ale was young, freshly brewed, then regardless of its strength it was sold as ‘mild’. Once it had matured, and gained the characteristics of an aged beer, it was sold as ‘old’. Generally only the stronger ale survived to be sold and drunk as ‘old ale’, because the weaker ale would go too sour before it had aged properly. This is why today we think of ‘old ale’ as a strong drink. So if the same cask of beer can be ‘mild ale’ when it’s young and ‘old ale’ when it’s aged a bit, we’re twisting the meaning of the word ‘style’ if we try to assert that at some point in its life, the contents of that cask changed from one style to another, I suggest”.  From there, Cornell then seems to find evidence that at some point, at least a couple of those old ales began to be referred to in as a “barley wine”.  (Cornell tracked down a comparative listing of several Old Ales published in an 1870 issue of British Medical Journal in which a Bass produced beer was referred to as a “barley wine”, not by the brewery, but if I read correctly, by the author of the list itself.)  The entire body of research reminds me of other writings of the history of beer in which descriptive terms that have survived the ages and now seem to be used in a somewhat specific way to define a beer “style” started out as simply an adjective for a very wide range of beers.  “Old Ale” seems it was just that, an older beer.  “Barley wine”, a strong beer made from (of course) barley.  So perhaps the only distinction between the two beer “styles” is not within the beer itself, but instead has always depended upon who is describing it and what they choose to call it at the time.  So once again, it seems to be that oftentimes when you follow it to the source, beer is simply just that…beer.

Sure, an argument could definitely be made that when any beer is aged long enough, I suppose as long as it is strong enough to survive the aging at all, it could become a different beer, especially when aged in less controlled conditions such as those in the late 19th century.  But I tend to think that it’s also just as easy to see the Cornell’s point.  The only intent involved in calling these beers different names was based upon when they were intended to be drunk.  A beer could be brewed strong enough to survive some amount of aging, but it could be drunk either in that aged form or when still young, but either way it was the same brewed beer.  Those stronger, more aged ales were simply “old” versions of the beer, and then were at least occasionally referred to as a “barley wine”.

This sort of back story behind current beer “style” definitions may seem to only confuse matters, but I think only adds to the allure of world’s oldest beverage.  At the very least, if beer history is something that interests you at all, beginning (but more importantly, then ending) your understanding of a type of beer with the kind of short definitions found so easily on the internet is doing a disservice to yourself as well as the beer itself.  The danger that truly exists is when we lump a bunch of beers together as a particular “style”, someone tastes one out the group that they don’t care for, and dismiss the entire lot of them.  It’s beer guilt by association.  So take those style labels and the definitions they stand for for what they are, a fuzzy snapshot of distant relatives.  Even as current guidelines, they struggle to categorize beer into groups that can boast very many familial qualities, since beer is something that tends to defy categorization anyhow.  Looking backwards into the past, research that is done by writers such as Cornell prove that those sort of write ups are at least only the beginning of a much bigger story, and time and time again, we find that history seems to have little to no use for them.   As I taste more barleywines – excuse me, old ales…whichever – or maybe even beers in general, I think I do too.


So what beers actually got me started on this article?

Devils Milk and Hibernation AleThe reappearance of Colorado’s Great Divide in Virginia a few months ago not only reintroduced the ability to buy their very good IPA Titan and their well known Imperial Stout series Yeti, but also caused a couple of new to me beers to show up on shelves.  One of which is their seasonal release called “Hibernation”.  When I first tasted this beer, I instantly thought how valuable this beer would be if I were making do on a chilly camping trip, huddled around a campfire trying to stay warm.  The beer features a decidedly charred, smoky taste that usually I am not a fan of, but when matched up with the beer’s just enough, fuller body and its earthy, slightly wet tea leaf hop flavor, the entire experience is a perfect fit for a chilly evening.  There may be a little bitter chocolate mixed in there somewhere as well, with accompanying slight sweetness.  This is one of those “you’ll have to take my word for it” descriptions, but when I say that the beer tastes like the liquefied version of a roaring yet slightly damp campfire, it’s a good thing.

Old FoghornWhen it comes to the perfect cold weather sipper, hardly anything can beat Anchor Brewing’s “Old Foghorn”.  A slightly weighty body and just noticeable level of alcohol warmth makes sure that the plentiful raisin like flavors stick around for a while, which become more apparent as it warms.  The beer is said to be an American twist on an English Barleywine due to the inclusion of American citrusy hops, which only make a slight appearance on the scene.

Another big time beer (and an interesting classification on BeerAdvocate.com, where it’s listed as a Barleywine), is Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale.  Dessert beer, aperitif, nightcap, or full scale wall against the cold, Third Coast boasts a nearly viscous, medium heavy body, and is a full on ode to the malts used.  Huge tastes of alcohol macerated dates or raisins dominate, and with the body, has a nearly molasses like affect.  One that should be tasted to experience, but as the brewery notes on their website, one that would be good for cellaring.

Others of the many out on the market include North Coast’s Old Stock Ale, DuClaw Brewing’s Devils Milk, and Victory’s Old Horizontal.  For a more than slight twist, not to miss is Founder’s Old Curmudgeon, which is aged in bourbon barrels and has molasses added to it for an extremely intense experience.  On the very edge of things is Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, a “barleywine style” ale that features heavy handed hop tastes and aromas.

Please take a look at Martyn Cornell’s article in full, which, along with his other works, is a supremely interesting and magnificent read here: http://zythophile.wordpress.com/2010/09/14/so-what-is-the-difference-between-barley-wine-and-old-ale/

And also, here is the All About Beer Magazine article about Old Ales: http://allaboutbeer.com/article/old-ale/


~ by thebeerroad on January 15, 2014.

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