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home Home > Subscribe to Ratebeer.com Weekly RateBeer Archives > Styles & Seasonals

Beer Style - Strong Anglo-American Ales

Scotch Ale, Old Ale, English Strong, American Strong, Barley Wine
Styles & Seasonals June 23, 2005      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

Scotch Ale

In character, Scotch Ales are like big brothers to Scottish Ale. But the style’s development has taken a few different turns. The Scottish enjoy strong beers called wee heavy. It might be a stretch to consider these local versions of barley wine. If anything, they might be lower-gravity versions of Sparkling Ale, which was once quite popular in Scotland (and unrelated to Cooper’s Sparkling). These have the same flavours and aromas – toffee, earth, dark fruits, smoke, liquorice – wrapped in a bigger, fuller, more alcoholic package. They are sweet, with little or no hop character.

But there is another Scotch Ale, that which developed in Belgium and France. Before the Americans discovered the style, these were the most common examples (along with McEwan’s Scotch Ale). They have much the same character but are yeastier and fruitier. The yeast is less clean, and left in suspension as per the Belgian style. Some may be subtly spiced (McChouffe, for one).

So the style was not strictly developed as a local variant of English beer that the New World adopted and refined. The concept of Scotch Ale has always been much more clear than that of Scottish Ale and the development seemed to take place in both Scotland and Belgium/France at the same time, with the New World coming in and making slight adjustments, but not playing the same critical role in defining the style as it did with Scottish Ale, Irish Ale and English Pale.

Most popular examples: McEwan’s Scotch Ale (Scotland), Orkney Skullsplitter (Scotland), McChouffe (Belgium), Gordon/Douglas (Belgium/France), Belhaven Wee Heavy (Scotland)

Some of my favourites: McChouffe (Belgium), Orkney Skullsplitter (Scotland), Dieu de Ciel Équinoxe de Printemps (Canada), Harrington’s Big John Special Reserve (New Zealand), Pink Elephant McEllie’s (New Zealand)

Colour: 2.5 – 4.25
Flavour: 2 – 4
Sweetness: 3 – 4.5

Old Ale

Old Ale is a simple enough style for figure out. At least, once you
understand that there are three or four beer styles called Old Ale.
The first is the best known - the strong dark Old Peculier style. This is a malty beer, between 6-7% abv, with a dark brown colour and notes of molasses, toffee and dark fruit. It has a rich character, and minimal hop profile.

The second type of Old Ale is a blended dark ale. At least one of the beers comprising the blend will be aged for a couple of years in wood casks. This aging and blending technique can also be found in the Flemish Sour Ale and Gueuze styles. This type of Old Ale is quite different, however. They are dark, fruity, sweet beers of distinction. Other hallmarks of this type of Old Ale are low carbonation, a developing acid presence, and a slightly oily palate. Hop character is non-existent, and malty notes dominate, ranging from raisins and brown sugar, to vinous notes.

The third version of Old Ale is a form of mild – a low-gravity dark ale. It is probably stronger than mild (4%, or thereabouts), and blacker, with more emphasis on the same toffee and dark fruit notes that other Old Ales possess than on more typical “Mild”-type malt notes. This type of Old Ale is rather poorly defined though, and beers bearing this description are sometimes simply classed as Mild.

Another version of Old Ale is closely related to the first. For me, these
are robustly malty beers, akin to a top-fermented version of a doppelbock.
They are differentiated from an English Strong Ale by their lack of hop or
yeast character. Alcohol tends to be 6.5% or higher and the chewy malt
predominates from the warm nose to the long finish.

Most popular examples: Theakston Old Peculier (England) – type 1, Greene King Strong Suffolk (England) – type 2, Harviestoun Old Engine Oil (Scotland) – type 4, Gale’s Prize Old Ale (England) – type 2, Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog (England) – type 3

Some of my favourites: Gale’s Prize Old Ale (England) –type 2, Greene King Strong Suffolk (England) – type 2, Full Sail Wassail (USA) – type 4, Emerson’s Old 95 (New Zealand) – type 1, Theakston’s Old Peculier (England) – type 1

Colour: 3.75 – 4.75
Flavour: 3 – 4.25
Sweetness: 3 – 4.5

English Strong Ale

A category more than a style, English Strong encompasses those ales which are of English character that do not fall into the more tightly defined Old Ale or Barley Wine. ESA will tend to be dark, of respectable potentcy (at least 6%) and display balance. The major elements of beer – malt, hops, yeast and water should all be present on the palate. Bitterness should be there for structure, not to make a statement. Yeast character will be much higher than in an American Strong. Malts will be toastier, nuttier, or earthier than the toffeeish, chewy Old Ale or Scotch Ale. Within these loose parameters, beers may vary quite a bit in terms of IBUs, balance and even alcohol.

Most popular examples: Fuller’s 1845 (England), Samuel Smith Winter Welcome (England), Redhook Winterhook (USA), Traquair House Ale (Scotland), Young’s Special London (England)

Some of my favourites: Fuller’s 1845 (England), Wood’s Christmas Cracker (England), Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale (USA), Black Sheep Riggwelter (England), Coniston Old Man Ale (England)

Colour: 2.5 – 4
Flavour: 3 – 4.5
Sweetness: 3 – 4.75

American Strong Ale

A broad category that has emerged in a big way since the late 1990’s. American brewers are truly brewing with no limits, and American beer lovers are addicted to strong, intensely-flavoured beers. The most common of these are akin to a highly-hopped variant of English Strong. Something which a few term Imperial or Double Red is represented here as well – basically an oversized version of the Amber Ale theme.

When you look at the beers in this category, though, you realize that aside from strength (at least 7%) and massive flavour profiles (the hops in particular factor hugely in most of these brews) there is little point to trying to pin down a description for American Strong. The beers are that disparate and the innovations are flying fast and furious.

Most popular examples: Stone Arrogant Bastard (USA), Stone Double Bastard (USA), Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA (USA), Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve (USA), Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye (USA)

Some of my favourites: Southern Tier Old Man Winter (USA), Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye (USA), Bear Republic Red Rocket (USA), Stone Arrogant Bastard (USA), Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA (USA)

Colour: 2.5 – 4.25
Flavour: 3.25 – 5
Sweetness: 1 – 4.25

Barley Wine

Barley Wine probably has the best name of any beer style. The term originated in the early 20th century and came to refer to the strongest beer in an English brewery’s range. There are still a few barley wines in England, where it is regarded as a quaint oddity, but the style has been taken over by the Americans. To an American, a lot of English barley wine could just as well be called English Strong Ale because they have shifted the defining characteristics so much in the past couple of decades since Anchor Brewing first released Old Foghorn.

Barley Wine still denotes the biggest beer in a brewer’s range. These days, in the US, this tends to mean over 10% abv (where legally allowed), with massive malt and hop character. It can be either malt-accented or hop-accented but either way the flavours must be BIG. Hop rates will correspond with this. Even a malty barley wine will have a fairly sturdy 45 IBUs, and the hoppy ones go beyond the point where the tongue can distinguish the difference in bitterness levels. Because of the variation in character and plethora of ingredients, barley wines exhibit a wide range of flavour characteristics. Appearance-wise, though, they are almost universally ugly – some sort of muddy brown with no head. Complexity is key to the style – beers that big should not be brewed for straightforward flavours. If a barley wine is too straightforward, it is probably too young. Many examples of this style do not hit their peak until they are five years old, or even higher. Almost all barley wines benefit from aging.

Most popular examples: Sierra Nevada Big Foot (USA), Anchor Old Foghorn (USA), Victory Old Horizontal (USA), Dogfish Head Immort Ale (USA), Rogue Old Crustacean (USA)

Some of my favourites: Dogfish Head Immort Ale (USA), Victory Old Horizontal (USA), Diamond Knot Icebreaker (USA), Three Floyds Behemoth (USA), Fat Cat Old Bad Cat (Canada)

Colour: 2 – 4
Flavour: 3.75 – 5
Sweetness: 2 -5


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