Style Profile – Old Ale

Posted on 11.19.07 6:28PM under Old Ale, Style Profile, Winter Warmer

Winter Scene - thanks BBC.co.uk!

‘Tis the season. OK, well ‘tis nearly the season. At least it is cold enough to be the season here in Connecticut. Furthermore it is dark early enough to be the season. But rather than wallowing in self-pity as the days get shorter and colder, this is a time of year to celebrate. It is a time to get ready to hunker down and get warm in our homes. For those of us that live with beer, it is time for winter warmers!

Winter warmers come in a variety of types. Almost all are somewhat dark, some are black. Some are brewed with spices traditional to the holidays, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and the like (think of cider or eggnog). Some just use hops and malts to craft their wintry appeal. Most have boosted alcohol power, some significantly so. To me, the base for a holiday ale is Old Ale.
Now just because we call it Old Ale doesn’t mean it must be old to be enjoyed, but it does mean that it should improve with age. This is why a lot of the seasonal holiday releases by major brewers are dated, so as you keep them in your cellar for years to come, you will know which is which without needing an additional filing system.

Old Ale is really an English style, and a true Old Ale has over 6% alcohol. This would have historically helped it keep and age gracefully in conditions that may not have always been ideal. It also provides some of that warming character that we look for in our winter warmers. Old Ales also generally have a good amount of hops in them, not as much as an IPA, but perhaps as boldly hopped as any Pale Ale. Old Ales are not always very dark, which is a bit of a diversion from some modern winter beers. But it isn’t a stretch to see how dark grains could complement a high alcohol, moderately hopped brew.

Now don’t get me wrong – not all holiday ales and winter warmers are on the Old Ale base. For example, Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale is really more like a big IPA. Also, the Sam Adams Winter beer is a lager, so it could never technically be an ale. But that’s part of the beauty of styles – they provide a basis from which to form a common understanding, but as with many rules, they’re made to be broken, or at least stretched.

So as you sit in your big comfy chair next to the fireplace to read your favorite book tonight, pop open the latest winter warmer, pour it into your best beer glass, and enjoy its rich, deep flavor and aroma as it warms you from the inside out.

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