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Old, Strong and Stock Ales

by Martin Lodahl

As autumn approaches, a brewer's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of strong, fruity, and flavorful ales. These hearty beers are comfort for the "inner man" when the weather is raw, and pleasingly beguiling always.


A century ago, the terms old ale, strong ale, and stock ale were used interchangeably in Britain to describe tawny, high-gravity, high-alcohol ales. Several centuries before that, beers of that description were the rule rather than the exception. These were truly big beers -- in the year 1086, for example, one brewer used 175 quarters (78,400 lb) of barley, the same amount of wheat, and 708 quarters (317,184 lb) of oats, to make 84,768 gal of good English ale -- from the Domesday book and quoted by Randy Mosher (1), this recipe specified an impressive 5.6 lb of material per gallon!

Wort gravities much higher than we commonly see today were preferred, when refrigeration was unknown and transportation was slow and uncertain. Some caution should always be used in interpreting old recipes: weights and measures varied, malt characteristics varied, mashing techniques varied before thermometers and hydrometers were regularly applied to brewing, and old process descriptions left much to the imagination. Nevertheless it is clear that extremely high gravities were very much the rule through the 18th century, and gravities much higher than today's were the rule through the 19th.

Originally, the preservative effect of alcohol was the main reason for these high gravities, an effect later enhanced by very high hopping rates after hops came into general use. Today's old ales still tend to be strong, hoppy, and malty, but the name probably derives less from the characteristics they share with the ales of the middle ages than from the relatively long secondary fermentation needed to avoid a heavy, cloying, syrup-like flavor.

Before the role of yeast in fermentation was understood, and before brewers learned to take precautions against contamination from airborne microflora, brewing was an occupation of the cooler months. Grists were mashed more than once; the secondary mashes produced a light small beer, running beer, or present-use ale for immediate consumption. The first mashes produced a strong provision beer or stock ale to be stored for the summer months.

In England, storage was either in large wooden vats or in wooden casks, which harbored yeasts of the Brettanomyces genus and other microflora. Beers treated in this fashion developed sour and fruity flavors, once considered an indispensable part of the flavor profile of old ales; only one example -- Greene King's "Strong Suffolk" -- survives today to carry on this tradition. Though British methods and practices influenced American brewing, the cellaring of the stock ales once produced by many American breweries used aging techniques somewhat different from their British counterparts, largely lacking the Brettanomyces influence (2).


At the beginning of the 20th century, old ales and stock ales were still very strong ales. According to Wahl and Henius (2), an 1896 Bass Strong Ale was brewed to a gravity of 24.2 Balling (approximately 1.097 O.G.), with an alcohol content of 6.85% (w/v) and a lactic acid content of 0.288%. A 1901 "Olde English Ale, Dog's Head bottling," weighed in at 21.39 Balling (approximately 1.086 O.G.), with 8.75% alcohol (w/v) and 0.162% lactic acid. An 1882 analysis of "Somerset draught ale, three years old," showed a hearty 22.63 Balling (approximately 1.091), 8.57% by weight, and a sharp 0.63% lactic acid. In a pair of 1890 analyses comparing the development of a single product, 18-month-old Worthington Burton ale was measured at an impressive 24.2 Balling (approximately 1.097), 7.85% alcohol (w/v), and 0.3695% lactic acid, while an 1800 bottle of the same had an even greater amplitude, at 25.8 Balling (approximately 1.103), 8.7% alcohol (w/v), and a firm 0.6095% lactic acid. For an indication of relative sourness, Guinard (3) reports that today's lambics range from 0.049% for an extremely soft example, through 0.382% for a gueuze, 0.628% for a fruit lambic, and 1.345% for a ropy lambic. That fruit lambic must be an unusually hard example, like Cantillon, to have nearly twice the lactic acid of a gueuze, and the ropy lambics I've tried have all been intensely sour indeed.

In these very malty high-gravity beers, though, the effect is likely to be perceived more as complexity and a certain drying of the flavor, than as lambic-like sourness. And indeed they weren't as sour as the lambics of their day; Wahl and Henius reported that lambics analyzed in the same time frame as these ales were around 1% lactic acid. The lactic acid content of today's lagers is near the flavor threshold of 0.04%. For further comparison, an 1896 analysis of nine American stock ales produced an average wort density of 16.73 Balling (approximately 1.067), 5.55% alcohol, and 0.256% lactic acid, while in a 1900 analysis a Canadian stock ale measured 14.45 Balling (approximately 1.058) and 4.75% alcohol. No lactic acid figure is given.

As can be seen from the table, the type of balance the producers of old ales sought to create varied. Some beers were large and sweet, some large and dry, others large and sour, but the English examples were uniformly massive. American examples seem less so, but are still larger than the general run of American beers at the time and have a higher lactic acid content than other American ales or lagers.

The hopping schedules apparently further shifted the flavor balance toward a firm dryness. The British brewers of the day had no objection to importing materials, and hop charges could consist of as much as 50% imported hops, though Kent Goldings were valued for flavor and delicacy then as now. It is difficult to determine the cultivars used, but the sources were Bavaria, California, Kent, and Sussex.

Kettle hops were applied in a single charge, generally at the beginning of a 1- to 2-h boil, at a rate of 2-3 lb/bbl. Taken as a ratio of pounds of hops per quarter (336 lb) of malt, this lands in the 10-14 lb range, as compared with 8-10 lb for bitter, as low as 4 lb for mild, or as much as 20 lb for Burton export ale. They were also frequently dry-hopped at a rate of around 1 lb/bbl. Although we can only guess at the bitterness, it is clear that these beers were emphatically hopped.


In Britain, production methods were similar to those used for the more familiar pale ales. Because many brewers felt that beer made from it would keep better, much of the available malt was made from barley imported from California, malted in ways that would be familiar today.

As was the case with pale ales, the mash was usually an infusion of approximately 125 lb of malt/bbl (American) of water, beginning at 151- 152 degrees F, standing for 15-30 min, then raised through hot-water underlet of the mash tun to 153 degrees F and let stand for 1-1/2 to 2 h before tapping. The sparge would begin at 170 degrees F and gradually decline, to keep the temperature of the sweet wort running into the kettle at 152 degrees F. Even a century ago, it was common to add invert sugar or glucose to the kettle. The water used was generally the same as that used for pale ales; some brewers believed it was advantageous to raise the sulfate content and lower the chlorides.

In America around the same time, stock ales were brewed generally either from pale malt alone or with the addition of 25% sugar in the kettle, 30 min before knockout. A common mashing method was to mash in at 149- 151 degrees F, raise the mash temperature through hot-water underlet to 154 degrees F, and rest until 1 h after conversion took place. Sparge water temperatures would begin at 176 degrees F and decline gradually to 165 degrees F. Hopping was usually at a rate of 2-3 lb/bbl, with one-third of the charge added when the wort began to boil, another third 1 h later, and the final third 1 h after that, about 10 min before knockout. Wort densities were generally in the 16-18 Balling (1.064- 1.072 O.G.) range, as mentioned above. The wort was cooled to approximately 59 degrees F and pitched with 1.5 lb of yeast/bbl, then allowed to rise in temperature up to approximately 70 degrees F and held at that temperature for the next 36 h. The yeast would then be roused and skimmed, settled for two days, and then run into the trade packages (barrels, generally). Before bunging, 1/4 lb of dry hops would be added, plus a pint of 30% cane-sugar solution per barrel. After 3- 4 months of aging, the ale was ready to ship.


All of this changed, of course, with Prohibition. With brewing effectively outlawed in the United States in 1919 (earlier, in some states), continuity was lost both in the development of a beer esthetic and in the production of quality beers. Brewers returning to their craft after a hiatus of 14 years or more found that much had to be relearned and that tastes had changed; the spate of brewing manuals that appeared in these first days make it clear just how dramatic the change was. Nugey provides an especially clear example of a stock ale with a gravity of 17 Balling (1.068 O.G.) made from 4025 lb of pale malt (presumably six-row, based on the context of its description), 1260 lb of flaked maize, and 1780 lb of invert syrup for a 100-bbl batch (4).

The recipe in the accompanying box is compiled from information appearing in the book, gathering together general data and applying them to a specific recipe while omitting the advertisements for the author's own products and expanding the quantities and units when necessary.* Wherever possible, original phrasing has been preserved. The ingredients and quantities listed are from a table on page 42 of the original text. The process through the boil begins on page 39 of that text, the cellaring discussion on page 41, and the formulas for computing required quantities of water on page 24. Because of the degree to which this text has been synthesized, I have made no attempt to mark the "splices," in the interest of readability. Some very peculiar remarks have been preserved and placed in quotation marks. It appears to be a perfectly usable recipe, though my own experience with the author's formulas suggests that the volume of sparge water is a considerable underestimate; for a batch size of 100 bbl, using closer to 100 bbl of sparge water would likely produce better results.

At first glance, it appears that one of the most remarkable aspects of this recipe is the very long aging for a beer of substantial but unexceptional gravity. What is actually more remarkable is that the fermentation and cellaring directions are intended to apply to beers of all gravities, not just to stock ales. In the works of Nugey, no distinction in processing is made, and that appeared to be common practice for American brewers of his time. This particular stock ale was a much lighter beer than the English examples of a generation or two earlier but is in the range cited by Wahl and Henius (see above) before Prohibition.

After World War II, however, the picture changed. In another book by Nugey (5), stock ale is described as " . . . an ale having an O.G. of not less than 15 Balling and usually of a vinous character," but an analysis of a stock ale appearing a few pages later shows a gravity of only 12.8 Balling, 3.5% alcohol by weight, and, interestingly, a lactic acid content of 0.23%, which in a beer of that magnitude would be perceived as emphatically tart. In America, the terms "stock ale" and "strong ale" were no longer synonymous.

Sadly, the British beer industry was not immune to the same effect. The reasons for it are clear enough: tastes appear to have grown progressively more bland in the postwar world, and the need for economy in production processes increasingly affected the nature of the product. By its nature, old ale is expensive to produce, requiring much more malt and, perhaps more important, making much greater demands upon tankage than its lighter brethren.

The effects of a taxation system based on wort gravity also should not be overlooked. Beginning with Gladstone's "Free Mash Tun Act" of 1880, worts of a gravity higher than 14 degrees P were taxed at a proportionately higher rate than lighter worts, a trend that only intensified with the passage of time (6). Naturally, this Act made the already expensive strong ales even more expensive, increasing their disadvantage in the marketplace.


The descriptions that follow owe a great deal to the works of Michael Jackson, especially his recent Beer Companion, a book both more comprehensive and more legible than my own tasting notes.

Today's old ales from UK breweries fit into roughly three bands covering a wide range of gravities. The low-gravity band covers the 1.040s and consists of beers very similar in composition to the mild ales or bitters produced by the same breweries, but with a greater percentage of crystal and dark malts, sometimes different hopping, and sometimes longer aging. Examples of this approach include the old ales from Adnams, Harveys, Brakspear, Hook Norton, King & Barnes, Timothy Taylor, Cotleigh, and Oak.

The midrange band includes some of the classics of the style. Although Young's does not apply the name "old ale" to their Winter Warmer, it has the necessary attributes of firm and rich maltiness, dark color, and smooth sweetness. It weighs in at 1.055 O.G. and 4% alcohol (w/v). From Theakston's comes Old Peculier, perhaps best known to most Americans for its peculiar spelling and to beer lovers everywhere for it chewy complexity and treacle-like notes. Jackson places it at 1.057 O.G. and 4.2% alcohol (w/v) (7). In addition to the expected pale ale and crystal malts, it gets some additional color and flavor from torrified wheat, caramel, and three different sugars in the kettle. Fuggles hops are used for bittering and dry-hopping, with some other hops (including Northern Brewer) also used for bittering.

From the Greene King brewery comes a pair of blended ales that have the closest tie to antiquity of any ales now brewed in the UK. Greene King brews two ales that are never sold unblended, one a malty ale with an original gravity of 1.052 and 4.4% alcohol (w/v), which probably would not startle the average drinker. The other, however, traces its heritage directly to those ales mentioned at the beginning of this article, with an original gravity of 1.107 and 9.6% alcohol (w/v). This beer is aged from 1 to 5 years in a pair of very large oak tuns closely resembling the tuns long used by Rodenbach in Belgium. It is tempting to imagine that this beer has the sour complexity of a Rodenbach. Just as single-malt whiskies have a popularity unanticipated only a few years ago, this beer sold "straight" would certainly merit a strong reception. Together, the two blending beers form Strong Suffolk, 1.058 and 4.8% alcohol (w/v), which Jackson describes as "winy, oakey and iron-like." Another blend of the two plus the company's barleywine (St. Edmund, 1.060 O.G., 5.2% alcohol [w/v]) is the draft-only Winter Ale (1.060, 4.8% alcohol [w/v]), a more rounded and malty but less complex and aggressive ale.

At the upper end of the gravity range are two more of the classics of the genre, Gale's Prize Old Ale, and Thomas Hardy's ale, from Eldridge Pope. Both are sturdy enough to stand up to the old ales of a century ago. The Prize Old Ale, at 1.094 and 7.2% alcohol (w/v), is composed primarily of pale malt made from Maris Otter barley plus some black malt for color and a little sharpness. Hopped with Fuggles and East Kent Goldings and dry-hopped with Styrian Goldings, it is aged in glass-lined tanks for up to 1 year before bottling and is bottled with the expectation that it will continue to ferment. With no dosage of new fermentables or of new yeast and no filtration or pasteurization, this is the bottle equivalent of the practice of "bunging." It is clearly a beer designed to be laid down and is felt by many to reach its best only after five years or more in the bottle.

Thomas Hardy's ale is made using only pale malt, with its color derived entirely from wort density (1.125 O.G., 9.98% alcohol [w/v]) and caramelization during the boil. It is hopped with the same combination of Fuggles and East Kent Goldings, with Styrian Goldings for dry-hopping, and also is intended for long maturation in the bottle. I have some in my cellar now; it is an exercise in will power to allow it to mature sufficiently.

In North America, strong ales have not fared as well. Most beers sold under the name of stock ales are only slightly, if at all, stronger than the general run of pale ales, and it is more common for truly strong beers to be called barleywines. I can't help feeling, though, that the market has room for some strong, tawny ales of pleasing complexity and some strong and very pale stock ales generously hopped. There is nothing finer on a blustery afternoon or a chilly evening, and no better nightcap.


(1) R. Mosher, The Brewer's Companion (Alephenalia Publications, Seattle, 1994).

(2) R. Wahl and M. Henius, American Handy Book of Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades (Wahl-Henius Institute, Chicago, 1908).

(3) J.-X. Guinard, Lambic (Brewers Publications, Boulder, Colorado, 1990).

(4) A.L. Nugey, Brewing Formulas Practically Considered (self-published, Rahway, New Jersey, 1937).

(5) A.L. Nugey, Brewers Manual, Practically Considered (self-published, Rahway, New Jersey, 1948). Note: Despite the different title, this is essentially a second edition of reference 4.

(6) T. Foster, Pale Ale (Brewers Publications, Boulder, Colorado, 1990).

(7) M. Jackson, Michael Jackson's Beer Companion (Running Press, Philadelphia, 1993).