Brewing in Styles: Old, Strong, and Stock Ales


by Martin Lodahl & Roger Bergen (Brewing Techniques)



As autumn approaches, a brewer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of strong, fruity, and flavorful ales. 



Truly Big, Truly Old


A century ago, the terms old ale, strong ale, and stock ale were used interchangeably in Britain to describe tawny, high-gravity, high-alcohol ales. Several centuries before that, beers of that description were the rule rather than the exception. These were truly big beers — in the year 1086, for example, one brewer used 175 quarters (78,400 lb) of barley, the same amount of wheat, and 708 quarters (317,184 lb) of oats, to make 84,768 gal of good English ale — from the Domesday book and quoted by Randy Mosher, this recipe specified an impressive 5.6 lb of material per gallon!

Wort gravities much higher than we commonly see today were preferred, when refrigeration was unknown and transportation was slow and uncertain. Some caution should always be used in interpreting old recipes: weights and measures varied, malt characteristics varied, mashing techniques varied before thermometers and hydrometers were regularly applied to brewing, and old process descriptions left much to the imagination. Nevertheless it is clear that extremely high gravities were very much the rule through the 18th century, and gravities much higher than today’s were the rule through the 19th.

Originally, the preservative effect of alcohol was the main reason for these high gravities, an effect later enhanced by very high hopping rates after hops came into general use. Today’s old ales still tend to be strong, hoppy, and malty, but the name probably derives less from the characteristics they share with the ales of the middle ages than from the relatively long secondary fermentation needed to avoid a heavy, cloying, syrup-like flavor.

Before the role of yeast in fermentation was understood, and before brewers learned to take precautions against contamination from airborne microflora, brewing was an occupation of the cooler months. Grists were mashed more than once; the secondary mashes produced a light small beer, running beer, or present-use ale for immediate consumption. The first mashes produced a strong provision beer or stock ale to be stored for the summer months.

In England, storage was either in large wooden vats or in wooden casks, which harbored yeasts of the Brettanomyces genus and other microflora. Beers treated in this fashion developed sour and fruity flavors, once considered an indispensable part of the flavor profile of old ales; only one example — Greene King’s “Strong Suffolk” — survives today to carry on this tradition. Though British methods and practices influenced American brewing, the cellaring of the stock ales once produced by many American breweries used aging techniques somewhat different from their British counterparts, largely lacking the Brettanomyces influence.


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The Character of Classic Examples


At the beginning of the 20th century, old ales and stock ales were still very strong ales. According to Wahl and Henius, an 1896 Bass Strong Ale was brewed to a gravity of 24.2 Balling (~1.097 O.G.), with an alcohol content of 6.85% (w/v) and a lactic acid content of 0.288%. A 1901 “Olde English Ale, Dog’s Head bottling,” weighed in at 21.39 Balling (~1.086 O.G.), with 8.75% alcohol (w/v) and 0.162% lactic acid. An 1882 analysis of “Somerset draught ale, three years old,” showed a hearty 22.63 Balling (~1.091), 8.57% by weight, and a sharp 0.63% lactic acid. In a pair of 1890 analyses comparing the development of a single product, 18-month-old Worthington Burton ale was measured at an impressive 24.2 Balling (~1.097), 7.85% alcohol (w/v), and 0.3695% lactic acid, while an 1800 bottle of the same had an even greater amplitude, at 25.8 Balling (~1.103), 8.7% alcohol (w/v), and a firm 0.6095% lactic acid. For an indication of relative sourness, Guinard reports that today’s Iambics range from 0.049% for an extremely soft example, through 0.382% for a gueuze, 0.628% for a fruit Iambic, and 1.345% for a ropy Iambic. That fruit Iambic must be an unusually hard example, like Cantillon, to have nearly twice the lactic acid of a gueuze, and the ropy Iambics I’ve tried have all been intensely sour indeed.

In these very malty high-gravity beers, though, the effect is likely to be perceived more as complexity and a certain drying of the flavor, than as Iambic-like sourness. And indeed they weren’t as sour as the Iambics of their day; Wahl and Henius reported that Iambics analyzed in the same time frame as these ales were around 1% lactic acid. The lactic acid content of today’s lagers is near the flavor threshold of 0.04%. For further comparison, an 1896 analysis of nine American stock ales produced an average wort density of 16.73 Balling (~1.067), 5.55% alcohol, and 0.256% lactic acid, while in a 1900 analysis a Canadian stock ale measured 14.45 Balling (~1.058) and 4.75% alcohol. No lactic acid figure is given. These figures are summarized in Table I.

table i

Profile of Representative 19th Century Old Ales


Gravity (O.G.)

Alcohol (% [w/w])

Lactic (%)


1896 Bass Strong Ale




Probably quite sweet

1901 Olde English Ale




Dry and strong

1882 Somerset, three-year-old




Possibly somewhat, sour, firm, and dry

1800 Worthington




A massive, tart beer

1890 Worthington




Impressively large

Averages of the above




Big, strong, sharp beers

1896 American Stocks




Big and tart

1900 Canadian Stock



Would not seem unfamiliar today


As can be seen from the table, the type of balance the producers of old ales sought to create varied. Some beers were large and sweet, some large and dry, others large and sour, but the English examples were uniformly massive. American examples seem less so, but are still larger than the general run of American beers at the time and have a higher lactic acid content than other American ales or lagers.

The hopping schedules apparently further shifted the flavor balance toward a firm dryness. The British brewers of the day had no objection to importing materials, and hop charges could consist of as much as 50% imported hops, though Kent Goldings were valued for flavor and delicacy then as now. It is difficult to determine the cultivars used, but the sources were Bavaria, California, Kent, and Sussex.

Kettle hops were applied in a single charge, generally at the beginning of a 1- to 2-h boil, at a rate of 2–3 lb/bbl. Taken as a ratio of pounds of hops per quarter (336 lb) of malt, this lands in the 10–14 lb range, as compared with 8–10 lb for bitter, as low as 4 lb for mild, or as much as 20 lb for Burton export ale. They were also frequently dry-hopped at a rate of around 1 lb/bbl. Although we can only guess at the bitterness, it is clear that these beers were emphatically hopped.


Production Methods


In Britain, production methods were similar to those used for the more familiar pale ales. Because many brewers felt that beer made from it would keep better, much of the available malt was made from barley imported from California, malted in ways that would be familiar today.

As was the case with pale ales, the mash was usually an infusion of ~125 lb of malt/bbl (American) of water, beginning at 151–152 °F, standing for 15–30 min, then raised through hot-water underlet of the mash tun to 153 °F and let stand for 1½–2 h before tapping. The sparge would begin at 170 °F and gradually decline, to keep the temperature of the sweet wort running into the kettle at 152 °F. Even a century ago, it was common to add invert sugar or glucose to the kettle. The water used was generally the same as that used for pale ales; some brewers believed it was advantageous to raise the sulfate content and lower the chlorides.

In America around the same time, stock ales were brewed generally either from pale malt alone or with the addition of 25% sugar in the kettle, 30 min before knockout. A common mashing method was to mash in at 149–151 °F, raise the mash temperature through hot-water underlet to 154 °F, and rest until 1 h after conversion took place. Sparge water temperatures would begin at 176 °F and decline gradually to 165 °F. Hopping was usually at a rate of 2–3 lb/bbl, with one-third of the charge added when the wort began to boil, another third 1 h later, and the final third 1 h after that, about 10 min before knockout. Wort densities were generally in the 16–18 Balling (1.064–1.072 O.G.) range, as mentioned above.


Recipe for a Modern American Old Ale (circa 1937)

Preparing Main Malt Mash: Mash in 4025 lb malt with 38 barrels of water at 38 Reaumur* (48 C., 118 F.). When malt is well mashed in, adjust mash temperature with steam to 38 R. (48 C., 118 F.). Rest mash at this temperature for a period of one to one and one-quarter hours. Mash up with steam and required amount of boiling water (beginning with the 14 barrels required by the flakes—Ed.). While mash machine is operating add in the 1260 lbs. of flakes. Raise mash temperature to 52 R. (65 C., 149 F.). Rest mash at this temperature for conversion, period not to exceed 12 minutes. Mash off with steam to 58 R. (73 C., 163 F.), then raise up mashing rakes and admit through the underlet 3 barrels of hot water, for every 100 barrels of wort, to flush out the underdough. Rest mash for 30 minutes, and immediately make iodine test for the presence of any unconverted starch. Then drain and sparge (76 bbl, temperature unspecified — Ed.) into brew kettle.

Boiling Wort: Boil wort in the usual manner, total boiling time not to exceed 2.5 hours. Hop boiling period not to exceed 1.5 hours (160 lbs. hops identified only as “domestic”—Ed.). The 1780 lbs. of invert syrup should be added into the brew kettle 60 minutes before striking out. Separate wort from hops as rapidly as possible “so as to prevent abnormal input of hop extractives.”

Cooling and Wort Pitching: Wort should be cooled to about 11 Reaumur (14 C., 57 F.). Pitch wort with … (50 pounds of dry yeast, or 34 pounds pure cultured ale yeast—Ed.).

Fermenting Room Operation: Keep cellar temperature at approximately 10 R. (13 C., 55 F.). It is safe to permit the wort temperature to rise to 16 R. (20 C., 68 F.). Skim off after 24 hour period each day until yeast comes through, after which skim off twice daily. The first yeast will appear within the 65th hour. The best yeast for subsequent repitching other worts will come through between the 70th and 110th hours. After fermentation action drops, then turn on the attemporators gradually. When fermentation action has ceased, then turn on the attemporators full, and cool to 6 R. (7.5 C., 45.5 F.). Then drop the fermented wort into dry-hopping vessel. The cellar in which this vessel is located must be maintained at the same temperature as the fermented wort, namely 6 R. (7.5 C., 45.5 F.).

Storage and Finishing Operations: If dry-hopping is to be conducted, use no less than ¼ pound of imported, or choice Yakima hops per each barrel of ale. The hops should be placed in a suitable cloth bag, that will not pass through any of the insoluble hop substances. The preferable method of conducting the dry-hopping operation is to weigh down the bags containing the hops so that they will be submerged below the surface [of] the fermented wort. The bags must then be secured to facilitate removal. The fermented wort should be circulated around to produce a uniform flavor throughout the entire tank. The optimum dry-hopping period is about 28 days and the fermented wort must not be disturbed during the last 7 days of the dry-hopping period. As a substitution for dry-hopping, genuine distilled hop-oil may be used. After dry-hopping has been finished, the ale should be cooled to not less than 0 R. (0 C., 32 F.) and then transported to the permanent ale storage tanks. The ale should be stored for not less than 4 weeks, and during this period finings and chill-proofing should be added. The ale may be finished off by carbonation. The best method is to carbonate twice, once when going into the chilling tank and secondly when the ale is pumped to the racker or the bottling tanks.

—From A.L. Nugey, Brewing Formulas Practically Considered (self-published, Rahway, New Jersey, 1937).

*Reaumur scale, in which 0 is the freezing point of water and 80 is the boiling point of water, at standard atmospheric pressure.


The wort was cooled to ~59 °F and pitched with 1.5 lb of yeast/bbl, then allowed to rise in temperature up to ~70 °F and held at that temperature for the next 36 h. The yeast would then be roused and skimmed, settled for two days, and then run into the trade packages (barrels, generally). Before bunging, ¼ lb of dry hops would be added, plus a pint of 30% cane-sugar solution per barrel. After 3—4 months of aging, the ale was ready to ship.


Modern Metamorphoses


All of this changed, of course, with Prohibition. With brewing effectively outlawed in the United States in 1919 (earlier, in some states), continuity was lost both in the development of a beer esthetic and in the production of quality beers. Brewers returning to their craft after a hiatus of 14 years or more found that much had to be relearned and that tastes had changed; the spate of brewing manuals that appeared in these first days make it clear just how dramatic the change was. Nugey provides an especially clear example of a stock ale with a gravity of 17 Balling (1.068 O.G.) made from 4025 lb of pale malt (presumably six-row, based on the context of its description), 1260 lb of flaked maize, and 1780 lb of invert syrup for a 100-bbl batch.

The recipe in the accompanying box is compiled from information appearing in the book, gathering together general data and applying them to a specific recipe while omitting the advertisements for the author’s own products and expanding the quantities and units when necessary.* Wherever possible, original phrasing has been preserved. The ingredients and quantities listed are from a table on page 42 of the original text. The process through the boil begins on page 39 of that text, the cellaring discussion on page 41, and the formulas for computing required quantities of water on page 24. Because of the degree to which this text has been synthesized, I have made no attempt to mark the “splices,” in the interest of readability. Some very peculiar remarks have been preserved and placed in quotation marks. It appears to be a perfectly usable recipe, though my own experience with the author’s formulas suggests that the volume of sparge water is a considerable underestimate; for a batch size of 100 bbl, using closer to 100 bbl of sparge water would likely produce better results.

*This source is not altogether reliable (the author was not actually a brewer), but there is reason to believe that the recipe and process cited here came from a commercial brewery.

At first glance, it appears that one of the most remarkable aspects of this recipe is the very long aging for a beer of substantial but unexceptional gravity. What is actually more remarkable is that the fermentation and cellaring directions are intended to apply to beers of all gravities, not just to stock ales. In the works of Nugey, no distinction in processing is made, and that appeared to be common practice for American brewers of his time. This particular stock ale was a much lighter beer than the English examples of a generation or two earlier but is in the range cited by Wahl and Henius (see above) before Prohibition.

After World War II, however, the picture changed. In another book by Nugey, stock ale is described as “… an ale having an O.G. of not less than 15 Balling and usually of a vinous character,” but an analysis of a stock ale appearing a few pages later shows a gravity of only 12.8 Balling, 3.5% alcohol by weight, and, interestingly, a lactic acid content of 0.23%, which in a beer of that magnitude would be perceived as emphatically tart. In America, the terms “stock ale” and “strong ale” were no longer synonymous.

Sadly, the British beer industry was not immune to the same effect. The reasons for it are clear enough: tastes appear to have grown progressively more bland in the postwar world, and the need for economy in production processes increasingly affected the nature of the product. By its nature, old ale is expensive to produce, requiring much more malt and, perhaps more important, making much greater demands upon tankage than its lighter brethren.

The effects of a taxation system based on wort gravity also should not be overlooked. Beginning with Gladstone’s “Free Mash Tun Act” of 1880, worts of a gravity higher than 14 °P were taxed at a proportionately higher rate than lighter worts, a trend that only intensified with the passage of time. Naturally, this Act made the already expensive strong ales even more expensive, increasing their disadvantage in the marketplace.


Today's Examples


The descriptions that follow owe a great deal to the works of Michael Jackson, especially his recent Beer Companion, a book both more comprehensive and more legible than my own tasting notes.

Today’s old ales from UK breweries fit into roughly three bands covering a wide range of gravities. The low-gravity band covers the 1.040s and consists of beers very similar in composition to the mild ales or bitters produced by the same breweries, but with a greater percentage of crystal and dark malts, sometimes different hopping, and sometimes longer aging. Examples of this approach include the old ales from Adnams, Harveys, Brakspear, Hook Norton, King & Barnes, Timothy Taylor, Cotleigh, and Oak.

The midrange band includes some of the classics of the style. Although Young’s does not apply the name “old ale” to their Winter Warmer, it has the necessary attributes of firm and rich maltiness, dark color, and smooth sweetness. It weighs in at 1.055 O.G. and 4% alcohol (w/v). From Theakston’s comes Old Peculier, perhaps best known to most Americans for its peculiar spelling and to beer lovers everywhere for it chewy complexity and treacle-like notes. Jackson places it at 1.057 O.G. and 4.2% alcohol (w/v). In addition to the expected pale ale and crystal malts, it gets some additional color and flavor from torrified wheat, caramel, and three different sugars in the kettle. Fuggles hops are used for bittering and dry-hopping, with some other hops (including Northern Brewer) also used for bittering.

From the Greene King brewery comes a pair of blended ales that have the closest tie to antiquity of any ales now brewed in the UK. Greene King brews two ales that are never sold unblended, one a malty ale with an original gravity of 1.052 and 4.4% alcohol (w/v), which probably would not startle the average drinker. The other, however, traces its heritage directly to those ales mentioned at the beginning of this article, with an original gravity of 1.107 and 9.6% alcohol (w/v). This beer is aged from 1 to 5 years in a pair of very large oak tuns closely resembling the tuns long used by Rodenbach in Belgium. It is tempting to imagine that this beer has the sour complexity of a Rodenbach. Just as single-malt whiskies have a popularity unanticipated only a few years ago, this beer sold “straight” would certainly merit a strong reception. Together, the two blending beers form Strong Suffolk, 1.058 and 4.8% alcohol (w/v), which Jackson describes as “winy, oakey and iron-like.” Another blend of the two plus the company’s barleywine (St. Edmund, 1.060 O.G., 5.2% alcohol [w/v]) is the draft-only Winter Ale (1.060, 4.8% alcohol [w/v]), a more rounded and malty but less complex and aggressive ale.

At the upper end of the gravity range are two more of the classics of the genre, Gale’s Prize Old Ale, and Thomas Hardy’s ale, from Eldridge Pope. Both are sturdy enough to stand up to the old ales of a century ago. The Prize Old Ale, at 1.094 and 7.2% alcohol (w/v), is composed primarily of pale malt made from Maris Otter barley plus some black malt for color and a little sharpness. Hopped with Fuggles and East Kent Goldings and dry-hopped with Styrian Goldings, it is aged in glass-lined tanks for up to 1 year before bottling and is bottled with the expectation that it will continue to ferment. With no dosage of new fermentables or of new yeast and no filtration or pasteurization, this is the bottle equivalent of the practice of “bunging.” It is clearly a beer designed to be laid down and is felt by many to reach its best only after five years or more in the bottle.

Thomas Hardy’s ale is made using only pale malt, with its color derived entirely from wort density (1.125 O.G., 9.98% alcohol [w/v]) and caramelization during the boil. It is hopped with the same combination of Fuggles and East Kent Goldings, with Styrian Goldings for dry-hopping, and also is intended for long maturation in the bottle. I have some in my cellar now; it is an exercise in will power to allow it to mature sufficiently.

In North America, strong ales have not fared as well. Most beers sold under the name of stock ales are only slightly, if at all, stronger than the general run of pale ales, and it is more common for truly strong beers to be called barleywines. I can’t help feeling, though, that the market has room for some strong, tawny ales of pleasing complexity and some strong and very pale stock ales generously hopped. There is nothing finer on a blustery afternoon or a chilly evening, and no better nightcap.

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