Blue sky drinking: old ales

Categories: Expert guidance

Daniel Tapper on why old ale, a style of British beer that benefits from months or even years of ageing, is well worth the wait

If I told you the location, then I’d have to kill you. But right now, buried deep beneath the heather on Ilkley moor is a treasure trove of exceedingly special beer. It may sound a little odd, but on New Year’s Day each year my friends and I head out with puffer jackets and spades to crack the frosty peat and hide eight bottles of a beer known as ‘old ale’. Here the bottles remain for a full 12 months, protected from the twin foes of light and heat, before being unearthed and enjoyed with much pomp and ceremony the following year.

Sadly, I cannot take credit for the tradition. Shepherds in the region have been burying old ale, a strong, mahogany-hued beer designed for ageing, for more than 200 years. Indeed, according to food historian Peter Brears, two 18th-century farming brothers once buried four gallons of the beer on nearby Saddleworth moor, but subsequently forgot the location. Presumably the bounty is still out there, tasting better than ever.

Low in hoppy aroma, high in alcohol and with plenty of residual sweetness, the original old ales were robust enough to spend months, even years, mellowing in wooden casks before being served. This not only imbued them with flavours of oak but also encouraged the development of wild yeast strains, giving the beer a noticeable lactic tang alongside the kind of funky barnyard flavours we now associate with natural wines.

Wild character
Though the wild character of these beers has been diminished, today’s examples are not to be sniffed at. Fuller’s Vintage Ale, for example, displays unctuous dried fruit and marmalade flavour. Some rare bottles from the 1990s now fetch more than £500 online. Samuel Smith’s Yorkshire Stingo, meanwhile, is matured in 100-year-old oak casks from which it derives flavours of molasses, toffee and Christmas pudding.

Another standout example, Thomas Hardy’s Ale, was first brewed in 1968 by the Eldridge Pope brewery to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the writer’s death. The 2018 vintage has complex aromas of dried figs, tobacco and dark chocolate, with older bottles developing flavours evocative of leather, smoke and the finest cognac.

Such characteristics make all of these beers perfectly suited to the onset of autumn, when many of us begin to pine for a corpulent liquid hug. So, whether you’re a shepherd or not (I suspect not), I implore you to purchase an old ale and head for the hills—just don’t forget the coordinates.

Five Points Old Greg’s, Utobeer
Brewed on New Year’s Eve, using a combination of earthy English hop varieties, this beer spends 12 months ageing in the bottle. The resulting ale is vinous, full-bodied and loaded with caramelised fruit flavours, making it a hit with roasted meats and pungent English cheeses. It works equally well with hearty vegetable stews and pies, particularly those laced with pungent herbs, like Rosie’s sage-topped tart. Do the beer justice by serving it at 11C in a stemmed, wide bowled glass.