Winter Ales

Masters Table 1998

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

One upon a time, anyone who had access to a bushel of malt and a handful of hops brewed their own beer and what they made and drank changed with the seasons. Ordinary beer was quaffed throughout most of the year but, as the days got shorter, our beer-drinking forbears warmed their hearts with much stronger ales, the descendants of today’s winter ales and barley wines.

These are beer styles which are very close cousins in the family of malts and hops, standing out from the pale ales, brown ales, stouts and bitters of everyday drinking by virtue of their complex, blockbusting tastes and high alcohol content — this latter factor gives them a definite warming character and means they can be laid down to mature and improve with age.

Since the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) helped save what we call ‘real ale’, ie traditional cask-conditioned ales, from extinction in the 1970s, the amount of winter ales and barley wines being brewed has increased. Available in either bottle or by handpump at your local inn, they are a style of beer worth hunting out.

Although they have different names, winter ales (also called old ales, strong ales and winter warmers) and barley wines are close enough in character to cause a lot of head-scratching among beer connoisseurs. Where does one start and the other begin?

The main difference seem to be that barley wines (which have nothing to do with wine) are stronger than winter ales — sometimes. Take Fuller’s barley wine Golden Pride, a tremendous 8.5%, as strong as many German wines. Contrast that with Young’s deliciously fruity and malty Winter Warmer at 5% and Adnams superbly balanced blend of roast malt and fruit, Old Ale, a mere stripling at 4.1%. Then again there’s Robinson’s gorgeous Old Tom which weighs in at 8.5%; this is described as a ‘strong ale’. It’s enough to make you sign the pledge!

There is also a slight variation in the colours of the beers. Winter ales are generally dark ranging from the blackness of stout to a solid, chestnut brown with reddish tinges. Barley wines are generally not so dark, ranging from reddish brown to lighter reddish brown and even amber.

Happily they both share a highly aromatic nose, with suggestions of fruit, Christmas pudding, treacle and toffee just some of the aromas recognised. In tasting they are full-bodied and often rich, with fruity, sweetish and occasionally subtle roast notes picked out on the palate. Any tendency towards an excess in sweetness is balanced by a generous amount of hops. The finish lingers like the warmth from a dying fire. These are not beers for slurping.

‘Barley wines and winter ales are for sipping,’ agrees Steve Wellington of the Bass Museum, who produce the madeira wine-like, smooth tasting No1 Barley Wine (10.5%), which was discontinued in the 1970s but has been brought back in the last couple of years. ‘They are to be savoured by the fireside. They’re very warming, for days when the weather is atrocious. So they should be treated with care.’

One of the new ‘old’ favourites is Gale’s Prize Old Ale (9%). A complex and highly individual drink it is corked in the bottle, all the better to ensure secondary fermentation and let the yeast do its work. Gale’s assistant brewer Moyra Williams, explains the brewing of the ale: ‘There’s normally a three hour boil (normal beer usually gets 90 minutes) with the hops added at different stages of the boil, and late hops added for aroma. It then matures for six months in the brewery. It is bottle-conditioned which means that the yeast is still working in the bottle.’

The long boil is also a vital factor in the brewing of No1 Barley Wine. Steve Wellington: ‘It gets a 12-hour boil in the copper, which evaporates 3/5 of the volume and caramelises the wort (the malty liquid prior to the adding of hops and the work of the yeast). We add a huge amount of hops (Fuggles and Goldings) in comparison with ordinary beers. Fermentation also takes longer than normal as well. I’m of the firm opinion that beers above 6% keep better for longer periods of time. We brew it in January, and keep it in the cask for most of the year. It brings out a wonderful drink and it’s definitely one for Christmas.’

The great bon viveur Auberon Waugh once wrote that beer and food should not be served together unless you happened to be in prison on Christmas Day. Happily, attitudes are changing as more people start to match food with our national drink. Albert Roux is one. He was at the Bass Museum last September cooking a lunch which made use of beer as an ingredient while selected ales were served with each course. And it’s the rich and warming food of the Christmas season that winter ales and barley wines especially complement. ‘There is definitely more interest with matching beer and food,’ says Steve Wellington. ‘No1 goes wonderfully with Christmas pudding, fruit cake and any reasonably rich and sweet food.’

There’s also the ancient art of mulling beer. In the granary store of East Anglia one of the most successful breweries in recent years has been Woodforde’s.Their Norfolk Nog (4.6%) is another distinctive beer to warm the cockles of the heart in winter. Voted CAMRA Champion Old Ale of Britain in 1992, it’s a full-bodied reddish brown beer packed with aroma and flavour but not so strong as to blow your head off.

It’s also excellent for mulling as brewery director Mike Betts explains, ‘we have experimented with mulling and it worked very well. First of all we put it on in a traditional pub with log fire. We put a poker in the fire and when it was hot put it in the glass. The beer around the poker first of all boiled giving a vigorous white head. The aroma is fantastic and the head is warm with the beer beneath cool. Delicious.’ The brewery also occasionally produce a well-hopped but mellow barley wine Norfolk Nips.

Whatever the confusion about where winter ales end and barley wines begin what is beyond doubt is that they are all beers to be treated with respect. To be savoured and slowly sipped like fine wines and ports, preferably in front of a roaring log fire with a piece of rich fruit cake or Stilton to hand. Long may they warm the cockles of the beer-lover’s heart.

• Other distinctive winter ales and barley wines to look out for include: Adnams Tally Ho, Brakspear’s OBJ, Exmoor Beast, Elgood’s Wenceslas Winter Warmer, Highgate Old Ale, Theakston’s Old Peculiar and Wadworth’s Old Timer.
• CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide is an excellent accessory in hunting out good pubs which serve well-kept winter ales and barley wines. Tuckers Maltings (see Reader Offer), Oddbins and the major supermarkets stock many bottled varieties. Bass’ No1 Barley Wine is available in limited amounts at the Bass Museum, Burton-on-Trent. (01283 511000).

Tasting Notes:
Gales Old Prize Ale (9%):
Here the confusion about winter ales and barley wines comes into full play. Despite being sold as Prize Old Ale, Gales call it a barley wine! Perhaps a winter warmer is the best compromise. Whatever the choice, it’s an incredibly complex beer, a deep dark-brown colour with a powerful toffee, raisiny and malty nose. There’s also a slightly burnt aroma making its presence known — perhaps due to roast malt? It’s rich, fruity (bananas?) and slightly sweet on the palate with a well-balanced hoppiness at the back of the mouth. There’s also a brief hint of coffee. A real blockbuster and delicious tasting ale. Recommended food includes strong cheddars, rich pudding and fruit cake. Serve instead of port at the end of a meal. Pouring should be done with great care to ensure that the yeast sediment is retained in the bottle.

Robinson’s Old Tom (8.5%):
First produced at the turn of the century and believed to be named after the Mancunian brewery’s cat at the time. This is a classic winter warmer which keeps out those cold Pennine winds. Almost black-blackcurrant in colour, it has a stupendous nose of toffee and malt followed by hints of caramel and fruit. A superbly balanced, mouth-filling, fruity, vinous and warming ale which also contains hints of the smokiness of whiskey. A drink to round the evening off. As for food, sticky toffee pudding is one of the suggested accompaniments. The brewery also offer a recipe for Old Tom Ale Cake. Available in both bottle and draught.

King & Barnes Christmas Ale 1996 (8%):
Described as a barley wine, this is a fruity and hoppy ale and the perfect accompaniment to a chilly winter’s night. Dark golden brown in colour, it starts with a zesty mix of malt, fruit and hops on the nose, followed by an explosion of fruit, vanilla, caramel and toffee in the taste well-balanced by a surprisingly refreshing hoppiness which leaves the palate wanting more. The Horsham based brewery describe it as liquid Christmas pudding but it would go well with any sticky delight as well as the cheese board. Best after at least a year in the bottle. The bottle conditioning mellows the sweetness associated with this strength of beer and allows the hoppiness to be retained. Bottle-conditioned only.

Harvey’s Christmas Ale (8.1%):
The family-run brewery in Lewes have been established since the late 18th century and were pioneers in the current trend for seasonal beers. Their Christmas Ale is a reddish brown colour with a malty, fruit-cake nose. There’s also a subtle hoppiness which stops this delicious ale from being too sweet. It’s rich, warming and malty on the palate at first with a hint of bitterness in the fruit finish. A very well-balanced and well-rounded dessert beer which would accompany fruit cake and Christmas pudding. Available in bottle only.

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Adrian Tierney-Jones