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Historical Perspectives on the Barley Wine/Old Ale Question

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Rohit Naimpally

Pol Sci, Econ and Cricket geek who loves a good pint

How often have you found yourself wondering what the difference between a barley wine and an old ale is? To my mind, I haven't been able to find a distinction between the two styles, so it irritates me when people correct my description of a certain beer as a barley wine by saying "oh no, it's actually an old ale", or vice versa.

As a matter of fact, if one accepts that both designations date back to some traditional English styles, then calling either style "ales" seems incorrect. In a post that I linked to earlier, Martyn Cornell details how the term "ale" was originally used to describe less hoppy beers while the designation "beer" was given to their hoppier cousins. Given the hopped-up nature of most American barley wines, calling them an ale of any sort would seem historically inaccurate. However, I am not wholly averse to linguistic drift: while I can respect the etymology of the word ale, I am more than happy to call warm-fermenting beers ales today.

All that having been said, let's return to the original question: what is the difference between a barley wine and an old ale? In a more recent post, Martyn Cornell confirms my suspicions by informing us that barley wines aren't strictly speaking a distinct style! Traditionally, one had the beers and the ales in Britain (as detailed above, beers being the hoppier of the two). "Mild" designated an ale that was fresh, while "old" was used to describe an ale that had been stored for a while, and thus wasn't fresh. As a result, one could have had a mild ale that eventually became an old ale; whoda think it?! Here's Cornell:
If ale was young, freshly brewed, then regardless of its strength it was sold as "mild". Once it had matured, and gained the characteristics of an aged beer, it was sold as "old". Generally only the stronger ale survived to be sold and drunk as "old ale", as because the weaker ale would go too sour before it had aged properly. This is why today we think of "old ale" as a strong drink. So if the same cask of beer can be "mild ale" when it's young and "old ale" when it's aged a bit, we're twisting the meaning of the word "style" if we try to assert that at some point in its life, the contents of that cask changed from one style to another, I suggest.
As far as barley wines go, Cornell presents a wealth of evidence to suggest that "barley wine" may have simply been a designation adopted by the Burton brewers for their stronger ales. Logically then, these barley wines would have been sold as "mild ale" when they were young/fresh and sold as "old ale" when they were older. Indeed, there is no real category "barley wine"; if Cornell is right (and he makes a pretty compelling argument), then even the old ale classification is misused today, as is the mild ale one.

The original post is a little long, but well worth your time. In particular, Cornell brings a ton of evidence to bear on his argument, including some great beer adverts from the 19th century. I would suggest cracking open your old ale/barley wine of choice and reading it at a leisurely pace. Although I am not big on the style (by which I mean beers classified under these categories today), my recommendation would be either the North Coast Old Stock Ale, or Bells' Third Coast Old Ale

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