Thursday, 22 January 2015

Brew Day: Vatted Old Ale

Martyn Cornell's list of endangered British beers includes the following two styles in the "critically endangered" category:

Vatted old ale
About the only survivor of vatted old ale in Britain is Greene King 5X, which is, alas, almost never made available on its own, but generally blended with other beers to make, eg, Strong Suffolk. Up to the end of the Second World War, however, Old Beer, matured for a year or more in huge oak vats, was still popular in the West Country, particularly in Bristol. Few brewers, alas, have the time or space to make long-aged beers today.

Sour aged ale

A variety of vatted old ale is the sour aged ale represented now only by Gale’s Prize Old Ale, where a proportion of each brew is held back, solera-style, to add to the following year’s fresh ale. The complexity and depth available from such long-aged beers, particularly after several years in bottle, is stunning. Fuller’s rescued POA when Gale’s closed, but again, few brewers have the time or space to devote to such a minority beer.

As I've mentioned here before, I'm pretty interested in these almost extinct British beers, and already have several attempts to recreate them underway.  So far I have stock ales inoculated with lactobacillus and one or two strains of brettanomyces, but nothing with the full complement of LAB and wild yeasts found in other sour beers.  This week I decided to change that by a beer inspired by Gale's Prize Ale: something strong, intended for long ageing, and inoculated with a range of organisms.

My original plan was to brew this as another solera, and I may still implement that by making another batch in the next month and combining the two together into a six gallon carboy.  I would then pull off three to four gallons once a year, and top the carboy off with fresh wort.  This is similar to the way that Gale's is brewed at Fullers.  They no longer use the wood from the original brewery (this used to be the source of the inoculation), but instead hold back a portion of each batch to inoculate the next one.  But there is also historical precedent for brewing a strong beer in this style.  It seems to have been something that British manor brewers did with their strong ales, as recounted in this delightful description of "marrying ale" that I found on Ron Pattinson's blog:

The method called marrying ale, we have often seen tried upon a private person's stock with success. It seems to increase its strength, but especially its mellowness and the fulness of its flavour, and consists in tapping a pipe or hogshead of ale in the middle, and when it is drawn as low as the tap, to fill up the cask with another brewing of wort. The particulars to be observed are: to begin upon a sound stock, such as is approved as to colour and flavour; for if there be any approach to acidity it will not do. The next point is to tun the newly-fermented wort upon the old stock, when it has fermented about twelve hours. The third particular, of great importance, seems to be, not to marry your ale in winter, but in autumn (October), for if your cellar be not a vault,the old stock is too chill, and the fermentation may suddenly stop: if this should happen, as in cellars that are not vaults, the heat may increase considerably in spring, the fermentation may be renewed, and the ale may spoil, or mischief happen to the cask by bursting. Ale that is brewed in the usual way will sometimes ferment in summer, and throw up the bungs of the barrels; especially if the fermentation have been hastily conducted, and little or no cleansing have taken place in the barrels after tunning (which is likely to be the case when brewing is performed in frosty weather); where this happens, the danger is that acidity will follow, and therefore the beer should be speedily used. When ale is married, the fermentation will bring away all the old hops, and it is not to be overlooked that the cork will rise that had been driven in with the tap. It is, therefore, requisite to work it out at the bunghole, skimming away the hops, &c. till they and the cork are discharged; then fill up the cask, and take out the top cork for cleansing, as before. It may be filled up several times with fresh wort, as in other cases, until the fermentation stops, and then the cork and bung put in (the latter very lightly) and left so until it is necessary to hop it down. The writer has refilled a cask in this manner five years successively, and had the ale always superior, and always alike in colour and flavour; in continuing this practice for a long period it is necessary to remove the casks for fear of accidents. The excellence of this ale is, that you can never guess at its age; it drinks always soft and mild, without any resemblance to ale recently brewed, and is equally remote from hardness or acidity
Lars Garshol describes a similar process implemented by walloon ironsmiths who emigrated to Sweeden in the 17th century.  It seems these workers missed beers from home (perhaps something akin to Flanders Red or Oud Bruin):
To satisfy their craving for walloon beer, the walloons started brewing their own beer. Out of this brewing quickly developed what seems to be a Swedish variation: hundred-year beer (hundraårig öl). This was a beer primarily made for the aristocratic owners of iron works or major mansions. 
It was brewed the same way as the walloon beer, and then stored in big wooden tuns. After a few years, half the beer would be drained off and bottled, and a new batch would be used to fill up the barrel again. This would go on for, in quite a few cases, many decades. The barrel would never be emptied, so it could literally be said to be hundred-year beer, although obviously the beer from a century ago would be present only "in homeopathic concentration" as one source put it.
Lars' post was the immediate inspiration for brewing this beer, and on his recommendation I sought out a copy of Country House Brewing in England by Pamela Sambrook, which I still haven't got round to reading.

I didn't agonize too much over my recipe for my beer.  The old recipe for Gale's Prize Ale was pretty straightforward: Maris Otter and a touch of Black Patent, with around 10% invert sugar.  Apparently Fullers have changed it since taking over the brand, using Optic, crystal, and chocolate malts.  I would have liked to have used all English malt for the base, but I'm running low until the next group buy in a few months, so I made do with a blend of US 2-row and Golden Promise.  I added about 5% medium crystal, and then on brew day cooked up a batch of invert #3 (via the dilution method) to make up about 10% of the grist by weight (not by extract).  I knew I was going to have problems hitting the high original gravity I wanted (somewhere around 1.090), so at the last moment I also added about half a cup of homemade Belgian candi syrup that's been lying around for ages.  Altogether this produced a rich chestnut-coloured wort in the vicinity of 1.090.  I hopped the beer to around 50 IBUs (the reported bitterness for Gale's), using some old Northdown hops for bittering and a blend of EKG and Fuggles for a 20 minute flavour addition.

My plan was to ferment the beer with a large amount of freshly top-cropped Wyeast 1318, along with the final 10-15 mls of a jar of ECY20 that I purchased last year.  I pitched both together so that the bacteria and wild yeasts had a chance to get established, but given that the beer will have a very high alcohol content I'm not expecting it to get too sour---in fact, I'm hoping it won't, since I'm looking for something more vinous, with a soft acidity and some light leathery funk.  Something I can bottle by itself, but also use as an interesting component in blended beers.  I gave the wort a healthy dose of oxygen, and the beer is now fermenting in the low 60s, hopefully keeping higher alcohols etc. in check.

If things go to plan I'll probably brew up a second batch in the next month or so, this time fermented with Wyeast 1318 alone since it will be blended with the inoculated beer in a six gallon carboy (still waiting for another 2-for-1 offer!).  Then, following the Swedish brewers described in Lars' post, I'll take a pull and top it up again around Christmas each year until I move out of here (which may mean only once or twice).


  1. How's this Old Ale coming along? I have one in the fermenter for about 5 months now and I'm going to let it sit for at least 12-15 months. I let it ferment with Burton union yeast first then pitched Hanssen's Lambic dregs. I added some medium Hungarian oak cubes. The esters and smell coming off this ale is fantastic. I hope you follow up on this post.

    1. Hello Kenneth, thanks for commenting. This one is still very young, but it was very estery last time I tried it. Perhaps I let the primary fermentation temperatures rise too early, but I expect the flavour profile to change dramatically over the next year. I haven't sampled it for a while, but I'm seeing a secondary fermentation and the beginnings of a pellicle. Like you, I'm not planning on bottling it for at least a year, but I'll post a follow up when I do. I'd be interested in hearing how your beer turns out.