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Very active Primary fermentation
Very active Primary fermentation

Brewing an Old Ale

Spare starter wort
Spare starter wort

Previously in this series of articles on How to brew different Styles of Beer? we covered Brewing an American Pale Ale, this time the Beer Style comes from the ‘Strong British Ale’ category in the BJCP 2015 Guidelines and is the style of an Old Ale.

In the following sections we are going to examine different aspects of this style such as its background, the style guidelines, ingredients used, sample recipes, brewing process, and finally the outcome of brewing a batch of this beer.


According to the BJCP Guidelines this style is historically an aged mild from when milds were stronger beers rather than the low gravity beers that they are now. Used as stock ales for blending or enjoyed at full strength (stale or stock refers to beers that were aged or stored for a significant period of time).

Filling Mash Tun with water
Filling Mash Tun with water

Commercial examples of this style include Gale’s Prize Old Ale, Burton Bridge Olde Expensive, Marston Owd Roger, Greene King Strong Suffolk Ale, and Theakston Old Peculier.


In the BJCP 2008 Style Guidelines the Old Ale and English Barleywine styles were grouped together with American Barleywine in the Strong Ale category. Strong Ale has now been split geographical with the Old Ale and English Barleywine now in the Strong British Ale category with English Strong Ale and Wee Heavy:

BJCP 2015 BJCP 2008
Category 17: Strong British Ale
19: Strong Ale
Styles 17A: English Strong Ale
17B: Old Ale
19A: Old Ale
17C: Wee Heavy
17D: English Barleywine 19B: English Barleywine
19C: American Barleywine

In the new guidelines the vital statistics of the Old Ale are as follows:

  • Original Gravity (OG) = 1.055 – 1.088
  • Final Gravity (FG) = 1.015 – 1.022
  • Alcohol By Volume (ABV) = 5.5 – 9.0%
  • Bitterness (IBUs) = 30 – 60
  • Color (SRM) = 10 – 22

The only changes from the 2008 guidelines are a lowering of the Starting Gravity by 5 points at the lower end and 2 points at the upper end of the range. The other change is a 0.5% drop in the lower end of the alcohol content range.


Malt bill: Maris Otter Pale malt, Crystal 80L malt, Black Patent malt, Organic sugar
Malt bill:
– Maris Otter Pale malt
– Crystal 80L malt
– Black Patent malt
– Organic sugar

According to the BJCP 2015 Guidelines the composition of characteristic ingredients varies and is generally similar to the English Strong Ale within the same category. The age character is the biggest driver of the final style profile and may be aged in wood, but should not have a strong wood character. Below are the characteristic ingredients of the English Strong Ale:

  • Malts: Grists vary, often based on pale malt with caramel and specialty malts. Some darker examples suggest that dark malts (e.g., chocolate, black malt) may be appropriate, though sparingly so as to avoid an overly roasted character.
  • Hops: Finish hops are traditionally English.
  • Yeast: Not specified.
  • Water: Not specified.
  • Additions: Sugary adjuncts are common, as are starchy adjuncts (maize, flaked barley, wheat).


Below are some recipes for 5 gallon batches of an Old Ale from leading authors in the homebrewing community together with some analysis on how they comply with the style guidelines:

– Fruitcake Old Ale –

Horizon pellet hops
Horizon pellet hops

Source: Radical Brewing
Author: Randy Mosher


  • 8.75 Munich malt
  • 3 Lb Amber malt
  • 1 Lb Special B malt
  • 4 oz Carafa II malt
  • 1.5 oz Liberty hops (bittering – 90 mins)
  • 0.5 oz Saaz hops (flavoring – 15 mins)
  • 0.5 oz Liberty hops (flavoring – 15 mins)
  • 0.25 tsp Nutmeg, Allspice
  • 2 tsp Ceylon Cinnamon
  • 1 tsp powdered Ginger and Vanilla extract
  • 3 Lb of dried fruit in secondary
  • Scottish Ale yeast


  • Boil for 90 mins


  • OG: 1.075
  • FG: 0.018 – 0.025
  • ABV: 6.5 – 7.5%
  • IBU: 31
  • SRM: n/a


  • Malts: The choice of base and specialty malts are uncharacteristic according to the guidelines.
  • Hops: Choice of hops are a combination of Czech noble and derived from noble varieties so out of style.
  • Yeast: Choice of yeast would normally be English but Scottish would give a similar taste profile regarding esters.
  • Statistics: Starting and top end of Finishing Gravity are both too high for the style. Alcohol content is within style as is the bitterness though the latter is at the bottom of the respective range.

– Old Stranger Cask Ale –

Big beer = a large pitch of yeast
Big beer = a large pitch of yeast

Source: Brewing Better Beer
Author: Gordon Strong


  • 10 Lb Crisp Maris Otter malt
  • 1 Lb Crisp Crystal 80L malt
  • 0.25 Lb Roasted Barley malt
  • 0.75 Lb CaraPils malt
  • 0.75 Lb CaraMunich malt
  • 1 Lb Torrified Wheat
  • 1 can of dark treacle
  • 1.5 oz Fuggles hops (bittering – 60 mins)
  • 0.5 oz Sterling hops (flavoring – 10 mins)
  • Wyeast 1098 British Ale yeast


  • Mash @ 151 deg F (66 deg C) for 2 hours
  • Boil for 90 mins
  • Ferment @ 72 deg F (22 deg C)


  • OG: 1.062
  • FG: 1.016
  • ABV: 6.0%
  • IBU: 24
  • SRM: n/a


  • Malts: The choice of Maris Otter as a base malt is within style as is Roasted Barley for a specialty malt. The choice of other specialty malts might be deemed a bit out of style though Torrified Wheat would help with both body and head retention.
  • Hops: Fuggles is an English variety though Sterling is more usually found in German or Czech beers so teh latter are out of style.
  • Yeast: Although the style guidelines do not specify the strain(s) of yeast to use a popular English variety makes most sense.
  • Statistics: The Starting and Finishing Gravities are towards the lower end of their respective ranges as is the alcohol content. The bitterness is 6 IBUs below the lower end of the range within the style guidelines.

– Old Treacle Mine –

A full Mash Tun
A full Mash Tun

Source: Brewing Classic Styles
Author: Jamil Zainasheff & John J. Palmer


  • 19.5 Lb British Pale Ale malt
  • 0.75 Lb Crystal 80L malt
  • 0.25 Lb Black Patent malt
  • 1.5 oz Horizon hops (bittering – 60 mins)
  • White Labs London Ale yeast (WLP013), Wyeast 1028 London Ale yeast, or Danstar Nottingham yeast


  • Mash @ 152 deg F (67 deg C)
  • Boil for 90 mins
  • Ferment @ 68 deg F (20 deg C)
  • Carbonate to 2 volumes


  • OG: 1.093
  • FG: 1.022
  • ABV: 9.0%
  • IBU: 66
  • SRM: 21


  • Malts: The use of a British base malt and Black Patent follow the guidelines though Crystal 80L may be a slight deviation.
  • Hops: Use of Horizon is perhaps a deviation from the suggestion of English varieties though should not matter too much with being for bittering only.
  • Yeast: Although the style guidelines do not specify the strain(s) of yeast to use an English variety makes most sense.
  • Statistics: All towards the upper end of the style with Starting Gravity being 5 points over and bitterness 6 IBUs too high.


Measuring OG (Original Gravity)
Measuring OG
(Original Gravity)

The recipe chosen for brewing this batch of Old Ale is Old Treacle Mine. The main reason for this is that it is closer to the style guidelines than the other sample recipes; Fruitcake Old Ale had all the spices which was the key reason for not choosing this plus Old Stranger Cash Ale was a bit low on strength as we wanted to age this for at least 6 months and felt a higher alcohol beer would benefit more from this.

Below is the actual recipe that I went with:

  • 16.75 Lb Maris Otter Pale malt
  • 0.75 Lb Crystal 80L malt
  • 0.25 Lb Patent Black malt
  • 1 Lb organic sugar
  • 1.5 oz Horizon hops (bittering – 60 mins)
  • White Labs London Ale yeast (WLP013)
Old Ale brewing steps
Old Ale brewing steps

The recipe was modified by reducing the amount of base malt to bring the Starting Gravity and alcohol content down towards the middle of the style ranges and some sugar was substituted to help reduce the Finishing Gravity and help the fermentation attenuate better.

The 5 gallon batch of beer was brewed following these steps:

  • Charcoal filtering the borough water and leaving it to stand overnight in order to vent off the chlorine.
  • Measuring out and milling the grains, also measuring out the hops and Irish Moss.
  • Sterilizing the fermentation equipment.
  • Heating the strike water to 154 deg F before mashing-in (adding the grist to the hot water).
  • Mashing for 75 mins at 152 deg F for the Saccharification rest so the starches convert into sugars (pH 5.6).
  • Raising the temperature to 168 deg F to mash-out for 10 mins to stop enzymatic activity i.e. halt the conversion of starches to sugars.
  • Removing the grain bag.
  • Boiling for 10 mins to allow time for the hot break to clear.
  • Continue boiling for 45 mins with the bittering hop addition.
  • Add Irish Moss at 15 mins to help clear the beer.
  • A yeast starter was prepared comprising of 8 oz of DME (Dry Malt Extract) in two liters of water and placed in a flask on a stir plate together with one packet of yeast.
  • Yeast nutrient was added to the wort once it had been cooled.
  • Wort was aerated with Oxygen (60 secs) via a diffusing stone connected to an O2 tank with a regulator.
  • Yeast starter was decanted prior to pitching into the wort so that most of the spent wort did not go into the beer.
  • Primary fermentation was at 68 deg F for two weeks in a temperature controlled freezer.
  • The beer was racked off the trub (sediment) into the secondary fermenter and held at 68 deg F for five months before cold crashing.
  • Beer will be force carbonated to 2.0 volumes of CO2 after cooling the beer to 36 deg F.


Very active Primary fermentation
Very active Primary fermentation

According to the style guidelines an Old Ale should have the following characteristics:

  • Appearance: Light amber to very dark reddish-brown color (most are fairly dark). Age and oxidation may darken the beer further. May be almost opaque (if not, should be clear). Moderate to low cream- to light tan-colored head; may be adversely affected by alcohol and age.
  • Aroma: Malty-sweet with fruity esters, often with a complex blend of dried-fruit, vinous, caramelly, molasses, nutty, toffee, light treacle, and/or other specialty malt aromas. Some alcohol and oxidative notes are acceptable, akin to those found in Sherry or Port. Hop aromas not usually present due to extended aging.
  • Flavor: Medium to high malt character with a luscious malt complexity, often with nutty, caramelly and/or molasses-like flavors. Light chocolate or roasted malt flavors are optional, but should never be prominent. Balance is often malty-sweet, but may be well hopped (the impression of bitterness often depends on amount of aging). Moderate to high fruity esters are common, and may take on a dried-fruit or vinous character. The finish may vary from dry to somewhat sweet. Extended aging may contribute oxidative flavors similar to a fine old Sherry, Port or Madeira. Alcoholic strength should be evident, though not overwhelming. Diacetyl low to none. Some wood-aged or blended versions may have a lactic or Brettanomyces character; but this is optional and should not be too strong. Any acidity or tannin from age should be well-integrated and contribute to complexity in the flavor profile, not be a dominant experience.
  • Mouth-feel: Medium to full, chewy body, although older examples may be lower in body due to continued attenuation during conditioning. Alcohol warmth is often evident and always welcome. Low to moderate carbonation, depending on age and conditioning. Light acidity may be present, as well as some tannin if wood-aged; both are optional.
  • Overall: An ale of moderate to fairly significant alcoholic strength, bigger than standard beers, though usually not as strong or rich as barleywine. Often tilted towards a maltier balance. “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” – Michael Jackson.

How did my batch of Old Ale turn out?

Measuring gravity prior to ageing
Measuring gravity prior to ageing

Brew day began with a stuck mash which caused circulation problems within my BIAB (Brew In A Bag) system. This was mainly due to the high grain bill making for a thick mash – the use of Rice Hulls for future high gravity beers should remedy this problem.

The resulting wort was only 3 points short of the target Original Gravity of 1.079 which is close and helped along by the well attenuated gravity ready of 1.018 after primary fermentation of two weeks. Primary fermentation was meant to be one week but I wanted to ensure it attenuated fully before racking off the trub and ageing for around six months.

Here are the actual vital statistics:

  • OG: 1.076
  • IG: 1.018**
  • FG: n/a
  • ABV: 7.6%+
  • Bitterness: 44.9 IBUs*
  • Color: 17.9 SRM*

* calculated via BeerSmith software.
** Intermediate or Interim Gravity reading after Primary fermentation.

The tasting notes are as follows:

Red in color with a tan head and no haze. A molasses and sweet aroma. Flavor has an alcohol warmth with slight roast and maltiness. Moderate carbonation with a dry finish.

What’s Next?

In my next article in this series I will be examining Brewing an American Barleywine which is in the ‘Strong American Ale’ category so please check back for that article to be published.

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