Saturday, 6 February 2010

When is an Old Ale not an Old Ale?

Question: When is an old ale not an old ale? Answer: When it's a sickly, yucky reddish- brown ale, rather than a rich, dark, full-bodied warming ale.

I had the unfortunate experience of enduring some yucky reddish- brown ale earlier today. I popped in to our local Wetherspoons, but only had time for just the one pint. Lined up on the bar I noticed Marstons Old Empire, a fine re-creation of an authentic IPA. I was sorely tempted, but next to it I spied a clip for Welton's Old Harry, abv. 5.2%. Being a fan of dark ales I went for the later - big mistake! The alarm bells were already ringing when the barmaid handed over a pint of auburn coloured liquid, devoid of even the slight semblance of a head. I handed over my money, silently cursing myself for not having asked whether this was a dark beer or not, (the young barmaid probably wouldn't have know, but she could have pulled a bit off to see first), before slinking off to a vacant table to consume said liquid.

My worst suspicions were confirmed on tasting the beer. Cloyingly sweet, totally devoid of balance and with an unpleasant, harsh bitter aftertaste. Unfortunately I've had beers like this before AND I HATE THEM! High gravity beers need plenty of good quality hops to counter the sweetness from the malt. Beers like Adnams Broadside, Batemans XXXB, Fullers ESB and even Greene King Abbot suceed in this respect. Likewise the reddish-brown hue of a beer needn't signify disaster; local brewer Larkins produce an excellent 4.4% Best Bitter, brewed from a grist that includes a high proportion of crystal malt (10%), but balanced out with just the right amount of hop bitterness to create the classic pint of Kentish bitter.

Welton's Old Harry has none of these virtues. As I sat there drinking this pint under protest, I kept thinking of the pale, hoppy, high-gravity Old Empire that I could have been enjoying. I was going to ask for brewers to stop prefixing beers with the word "Old" when they clearly aren't brewed in the style of an old ale, but the mention of Old Empire in the previous sentence defeats that argument. Perhaps it would just be better to ask that they stop producing sickly-sweet, under-hopped, reddish-brown ales, or where they do, could they please label them in such a way that I don't have the misfortune of drinking them!


Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

I think that Old Ale is basically a catch all style that includes several different types of beer. The odd surviving example and recreation of Burton tends to be classed as Old Ale as do strong Milds and certain stock ales. And those are just the beers that get classed as Old Ales when entered in competition! If you then look at all the beers that have old in the title it is very difficult to know what you are going to get.

Curmudgeon said...

While it's now marketed as a best bitter, Old Hooky was originally more of an old ale, and that's definitely a dark reddish-brown malty beer - albeit IMV a very good one.

Paul Garrard said...

I agree with Kieran 'Old Ale' does seem to be a catch all, a bit like IPA really. If this was France brewers would be a bit more disciplined and authentic about these things I suspect.

Paul Bailey said...

I had forgotten about Old Hooky; a good beer, but never quite one of my favourites.

I think Kieran and Paul are correct in their assertion that Old is something of a catch-all, and you never quite know what you're going to get. The Welton's offering was extremely poor though, and unfortunately they are not alone when it comes to churning out the odd cloyingly sweet and under-hopped, reddish-brown beer.

Richard said...

I'm quite into my beer and know a reasonable amount about it, but I'm only 28 and terms like "old ale" are basically meaningless to me. I think a lot of terms like this are in danger of dying off or at least becoming so vague or rarely used that they change meaning.

Philip said...

There misfortune indeed