Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Strong Ale

I like to think I can be gracious in admitting my own mistakes. Today it's confession time.

One page of the Whitbread gravity book is filled with entries for Strong Ales. The date is the same, July 16th 1953, for all of them. As Zythophile commented yesterday, this is just after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. I suspect this isn't a coincidence. The beers come from all over Britain and are in descending order by gravity.

A variety of different names are used, but Strong Ale, Barley Wine and Old Ale are the commonest. There are 7 Barley Wines, 5 Old Ales (plus an Old Timothy and an Old John), 26 Strong Ales, 5 with a royal theme (King's Ale, Prince Ale, Royal Ale), 2 with a university theme (College Ale, Audit Ale), and 10 others. I make that 57 in total. All but two - Bulldog Pale Ale and Felinfoel Strong Ale - are dark in colour.

Now for my confession. Until about 15 minutes ago, I had been very sure of the difference between Old Ale and Barley Wine. Old Ale was dark, Barley Wine was amber. Simple. And Barley Wine was stronger at 8-10% ABV to Old Ale's 4.5-7%. Strong Ale had always seemed a very vague term to me, but if pressed, I would have plumped for an amber beer of 6-8% ABV.

Let's take a look at the gravities.

Barley Wine: 1063.3 to 1078.9, 5.0 to 7.49% ABV
Old Ale: 1062.1 to 1080.5, 5.5 to 8.66% ABV
Strong Ale: 1043.3 to 1081.2, 3.68 to 7.4% ABV
(If we remove two unusually weak Strong Ales it looks like this: 1059.4 to 1081.2, 3.68 to 7.4% ABV

So what is the difference between Barley Wine, Old Ale and Strong Ale? Take a look at the specs and tell me what you think.


Anonymous said...

hey ron i got a question for ya and i cant get your email address from your site (the pop-up doesnt work for me), whats your email?

Anonymous said...

oops my email is grateful@umd.edu

Zythophile said...

I think we have once again to blame Saint Michael of Jackson. De mortuii nil nisi bonum and all that, but when he started writing about beers, because he didn't really understand the history of English beer styles, when he wrote about the strongest varieties he lumped everything except Imperial stout under the label "barley wine".

I've not found the term "barley wine" in use by British brewers before 1903, when Bass started using it to describe their No 1, which was their strongest Burton ale. What MJ never realised is that there were three different types or traditions of strong beer, besides Imperial stout: strong Burton ales, like Bass No 1; strong stock bitters (think Fuller's Vintage Ale); and strong ales of the XXXXX type, darker than but not as fruity-sweet as a Burton, and less hoppy than stock bitters or Burtons (Gale's Prize Old Ale being a classic example, a beer with dark mild at its weaker, younger end). Jacko lumped them all together as "barley wine" and then wondered why he couldn't find any common denominator in the "barley wines" except strength.

The labels slapped on these strong beers in the 20th century, I fear, was middlingly arbitrary – London drinkers, for example, called strong Burton either Burton or Old quite indisriminately. Thre are hints (see Keith Thomas's researches) that beers called Old Tom were dryer, paler and weaker than beers called Stingo, but my impression is that most brewers went for the XXXXX style of strong ale, dark and sweetish but not fruity, and paler strong beres of the stock bitter type were rare until Tennant's of Sheffield introduced Gold Label in 1951.

Ron Pattinson said...

zythophile, I'm started to get really confused.

I had thought that Barley Wine was development of March or October Keeping Beers. I know see that Bass No. 1 is a very different beast.

As I see it, the difference between a Burton and an XXXXX Old Ale is the hopping rate. But what I see amongst the London breweries is confusing. If you go back far enough you can find both XXX and KKK Strong Ales. The OG's are identical but the K beers have around 50% more hops. Before 1880 all of the X and K beers are 100% pale malt.

In the 1930's Barclay Perkins brewed three K beers: KK draught, KK bottled and KKKK. Matching the brewhouse names with the public names I come up with this:

KK (draught) - Burton
KK (bottled) - Southwarke No. 1 Olde Ale
KKKK - Strong Ale

All three were about mid-brown in colour, with the KKKK slightly darker.

So I agree that it seems that Burton and Old Ale were used rather confusingly in London.

In the Truman gravity book, Burtons are listed as "Strong Ale".

It's a shame that the Whitbread book doesn't record the levels of hoppiness as that seems to be the main distinction between Burton and Old. Just looking at the OG, FG and colour, I can't see any difference between beers that are called Barley Wine, Old Ale or Strong Ale.

I've only found two Barley Wines that are the strength you would expect: Bass and Tennants.

It's interesting what you say about the introduction of Gold Label in 1951. I had been wondering when it appeared. I realise that it has totally distorted my perception of what Barley Wine is. Yesterday I found it in the Whitbread gravity book. Interestingly, in 1955 they were brewing two Barley Wines:

Tennant Bros. Ltd Gold Label Barley Wine OG 1102.4, FG 1020.8, colour 45, 10.20% ABV, attenuation 79.69%
Tennant Bros. Ltd No. 1 Barley Wine OG 1097.5, FG 1022.6, colour 175, 9.36% ABV, attenuation 76.82%

I suspect that the Gold Triangle brewed by Bass and Whitbread Final Selection were similar beers to Tennant's Gold Label.

But I was struck by how by far the commonest name used was Strong Ale. I guess that covers all three styles: Burton, XXXXX and Stock Bitter.

Zythophile said...

Yes, I knew about Tennant's No 1 as a dark barley wine: several brewers, including Truman's and Ind Coope, seem to have gone in for No 1 as the name for their strongst beer, presumably imitating Bass

I susoect a lot of these beers were actually blends, like Greene King Strong Suffolk: at Truman's, a stock ale was brewed at the company's Burton brewery to an OG of circa 1120, matured and then shipped in cask down to the Brick Lane brewery where it was blended with a "runner" ale brewed in Brick Lane at around 1065 OG to get an ABV for the bottled product of about 8% to 9%.

I'm glad your figures on hopping rates support my belief that the XXXXX-type beers had fewer hops than the Burtons: I suspect this is because the original school of thought on strong beers in most of the country was to rely on alcohol rather than loads of hops as the main preservative, but the Burton brewers, because their gypsum-impregnated water supply allowed them to crank up the hops without getting harsh flavours through, went for adding hops as well.

I suspect the paler strong beers were pretty uncommon much before 1951 because dark beers, all other things being equal, stay in good condition longer than pale ones: head brewers in the 1930s would have learned their trade in Victorian times, knew this, and didn't brew very pale ales for maturing, head brewers in the 1950s didn't know this, and were following a general trend towards lighter-coloured beers in their strong ales as well - but bthis is just a guess.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

Hello chaps, interested in the earliest mention of barley wine, when I wrote West Country Ales I came across an ad from late in the Victorian age from Bartlett and Co in Dartmouth, who called their beers the ‘Barley Wine of the English Rhine’. Don’t know what sort of strength etc they were, but I always thought the brewers were trying to large up their beers for those who toadied to the great wine god (what’s new).

Ron Pattinson said...

beeralewhatever, I think zythophile is the best one to answer this. I always thought that the term was coined by Bass just after 1900. I'm sure zythophile would be interested to hear of an earlier use. You don't happen to have a copy of the advert, do you?

Anonymous said...

Somewhere I should have a copy of the ad, can’t remember if it was from the BHS archive or a book celebrating 100 years of Tuckers Maltings by Brian Gates, but it was an ad put out in response to Queen Victoria visiting the Dart Valley (or somewhere around there) and saying it was as beautiful as the Rhine — this the entry in the book (now online on my website, with grand plans of updating it but neverfinding the tine:
Bartlett & Co, Dartmouth, Devon
South Devon brewery which started trading at Warfleet mills in the middle of the 19th century. After a royal visit, Queen Victoria publicly noted the similarity of the Dart Valley to the Rhine Valley and the brewery capitalised on this with a trademark slogan ‘The barley wine of the English Rhine’. In the 1880s, owner Jasper Bartlett proclaimed Warfleet Pale Ales as ‘the finest beer in Britain’. Advertising gimmicks notwithstanding, the brewery was taken over by Exeter’s Heavitree in 1927 and brewing ceased a couple of years later.

My office is just surrounded by books on all sides and lord knows where the Tuckers book is, but I will keep looking.
This is a great companion to your magnificent website by the way.
Adrian T-J

Ron Pattinson said...

Adrian, very interesting stuff. ‘The barley wine of the English Rhine’ does have a nice ring to it.

I was wondering why British Home Stores would have an archive of brewery adverts until the penny dropped and I realised you meant the Brewery History Society.

I have the same problem sometimes with finding a book. Mine are piled up all over the place in no particular order.It's a miracle I can ever find anything.