The designation "old ale" is itchin' for abuse. Anything can be old. Old as in "sitting at the back of my fridge too long" or "made a long time ago, like Blitz lager." Even in England, where the style should have some meaning, breweries regularly take liberties with the style. Adnams has a beer they call an Old Ale, but it is just 4.1% and is "a mild ale style beer brewed with East Anglian pale ale and Crystal malted barley and Boadicea hops." An old ale that is a mild. Hold that thought a minute.
Breweries have long made very strong beers. Humans love intoxication, and there will always be demand for heavy hitters. Back in the day, the British referred to these with affectionate names like "crackskull," "stingo," and "huffcap." (Huffcapping was big in the winter of 1749-50. Kidding.) These beers were not only strong, though, they were also aged for months or years in oak. Old ales had other names like "stale" for this reason. After a year on wood, Old Crackskull would have taken on lots of character from wild yeasts. It would have gotten that sere, leathery quality we now associate with Belgian beers. In this context, the "old" referred to the time the beer had spent lounging around in barrels. Like stinky old cheese.
The opposite, of course, was "mild" ale, the fresh stuff breweries sent out lickety-split so publicans could start pouring it before the brettanomyces got busy. Old and mild were opposites. (Now, back to that Adnam's Old Ale. Their use of old to describe a mild is therefore a beautifully perverse turn of phrase. Adnams wishes to evoke a sense of the kind of beer old granddad may have enjoyed in the pub back in the fifties--you know, mild ale. One could say--and I would support it--that this use of metaphor is no less useful or poetic to the average punter in Southwold.) It was, however, regular practice to blend the two at the pub in order to spice up a mild with a bit of tartness from old ale. This may be where the word "stock" came from, yet another euphemism for old ale.
There are almost none of these kinds of old ales left in Britain. The two that spring to mind are Gale's Prize Old Ale (now made at Fuller's) and Greene King's Strong Suffolk. Americans have never really taken to the style, preferring their own super-hopped take on a barley wine. (The difference between old ales and barley wines? Damned little. Or anyway, semantic. Barley wine was a much later name used to help move product.) In America, actually right here in Portland, however, Upright's Alex Ganum, has shown an admirable enthusiasm for the kind of old ale you might have found in the days before microscopes had detected the existence of yeast.
Billy the Mountain
The name comes from a half-hour-long Frank Zappa song, incidentally--I think that's Ethell the tree on the label. The image I have omits the side text, which reads "a regular picturesque postcardy old ale"--a wink to the lyrics, which describe Billy as "a regular picturesque postcardy mountain." It's a psychedelic song in which Billy, flush with royalties from posing for postcards, goes on adventures that involve the draft, red-baiting, and Las Vegas. Good times. Anyway, we're here to discuss beer, so on to the other Billy the Mountain.
The first batch of the beer in 2009 was inoculated with brettanomcyes. Alex experimented in 2010 by blending 80% of the brett-inoculated Billy with a portion of sweet mild Billy. This year he's completely switched the ratio--just 20% brett-inoculated. By chance, I happened to have a year-old bottle at our annual holiday party last month. They strain Upright uses is a pretty gentle brett (I'm 90% sure it's claussenii, which is purportedly a British strain and therefore the one to make a beer like Dickens drank). Even after a year and even with an 80% blend (robust), I found that it "added a lovely tart snap to an otherwise hearty, sweet, English-style ale." In other words, not a face-melter.
I wondered if this year's would therefore be sweet--it doesn't have a lot of soured beer in it nor have those yeasts had a chance to do much to the base beer. But it was quite impressive. Here were my notes:
Balsamic nose, with a bit of berry jam. Reminds me of a Flanders brown. There's a tart undercurrent that has that balsamic tartness, but its enclosed in a dense, sweet, gingerbread beer. A touch of oak, too. Heavy and still, it would cloy if it were not brightened by the lovely tartness. There's some spiciness in here, and a long, port-like finish.It's easily one of the most interesting beers around, and one that will age for years. Given the amount of sugars left in the bottle for the wild yeasts to snack on, I expect it will change enormously over those years. If you drink a whole bottle yourself and listen to Zappa, you too will go on adventures. Oregonians are fortunate to have so many wonderful historical recreations around, and this is one of my faves.
Full Disclosure: the brewery gave me the bottle of this year's beer to taste, which is why I didn't throw it in the cellar, as all my instincts begged me to do.