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Question: What is a Strong Ale? What makes them different from other strong beers, such as Barleywine?

Answer: There are three types of Strong Ale grouped together in BJCP Category #19: English Old Ale, English Barleywine, and American Barleywine. With the recent revisions to the BJCP style guideline, Strong Scottish Ale joins the other Scottish ales in Category 9.

English Old Ale is a rich malty beer. Typically, it will exhibit a sherry-like oxidative note from extended aging. This puts it in stark contrast with the freshly fermented English Bitters and Pale Ale. It does share fruity estery aromas and flavors, though. Since hops tend to fade with age, Old Ale rarely has any hop aroma. The bitterness level is moderately high, but with the high gravity base, the overall balance is distinctly on the malty side.

Both Old Ale and Wee Heavy share the characteristics of high gravity fermentation. These include additional complexity such as alcoholic warming and sometimes a bit of raisiny flavors. These are created by higher alcohols, which are a natural result of the fermentation.

The two beers differ from the other strong beers. Barleywines tend to be slightly stronger, and more importantly, more bitter. Another strong ale, Russian Imperial Stout is brewed with roasted barley, creating a quite different flavor.

To brew an Old Ale, you need to take into account the effects of the higher gravity. If you're doing an all-grain batch, you'll probably have to cut back on the sparge water, or skip it entirely. You can increase the gravity with a longer boil. The grain bill is mostly pale malt or pale malt extract if you're an extract brewer. Include a considerable addition of crystal malt. Darker malts are typically not used.

Regardless of whether you're an extract brewer or an all-grain brewer, when you calculate the hop bitterness, you'll need to modify your hop utilization downward a bit. The sugars in the wort decrease the rate at which alpha acids are isomerized. Add about 15% more bittering hops to compensate. This style has little flavor or aroma, so almost all the hops should go in early.

To ferment the Strong Ales, start out with White Labs Essex Ale Yeast (WLP 022) for Old Ale. Yeast does not reproduce as effectively in strong wort, and can undergo mutations. These can lead to excess diacetyl or other off flavors. To counteract this tendency, you need to have a healthy yeast starter. For a five-gallon batch, make up at least a full quart of starter with a gravity of 1.020 and give it 24 hours. Also make sure the wort is completely oxygenated. Ferment the old ales at about 70°F.

Finally, it needs time to age to reach full maturity. Put it away for a couple months before you sample them, and make sure you save some for next winter. The Old Ales are sometimes vintage dated, and reach a peak about two years after bottling.

Vital Statstics for Strong Ales


Starting Gravity

Final Gravity

Bitterness, IBU

Color, SRM

Hop Aroma

Old Ale
English Barleywine
American Barleywine