I see Wikipedia reckons that “According to Martyn Cornell, ‘no historically meaningful difference exists between barley wines and old ales’.” Do I think that? You’ll be unshocked to learn that my beliefs are actually considerably more complex.
One problem is that in the real world, beer styles such as Burton Ale that have been called “barley wines” have also been called “old ales”. And milds. Another is that, as Michael Jackson pointed out in the 1970s, “barley wine” seems to be a name given to some very different beers. If Thomas Hardy’s Ale and Gold Label can both be called “barley wine” despite being utterly different beers, then we have a serious problem in defining “barley wine” as a style.
In fact I don’t believe there is actually any such meaningful style as “barley wine”, despite the BJCP attempting to draw up rules. Indeed, just to show how arsey such attempts at categories are, if you click on that link you’ll see the BJCP calls Fuller’s Golden Pride a barley wine and Fuller’s Vintage Ale an old ale, although they’re actually the same blahdy beer, the latter version being bottle-conditioned, the former not. And while Ratebeer and the BJCP says Thomas Hardy’s is a barley wine, Beer Advocate calls it an old ale. So: make your minds up, Yanks.
While you’re deciding on categories, however, I have to tell you – I’ve come to the conclusion that, as well as barley wine being effectively meaningless (it doesn’t even mean “any strong beer”, since no one seems to categorise Imperial stout as barley wine), there’s no such style as “old ale”, either. Not historically, anyway. From which it follows that (and this really will kick the hornet’s nest) there’s no such style as “mild”*.
It’s taken me a long time to work this out, because I was distracted, like other writers, by the modern usages of the terms “mild ale” and “old ale” into thinking that before the First World War “mild ale” and “old ale” in brewers’ adverts had the same meaning that they do today. But I finally realised that instead of there being two styles of beer represented in “mild ale” and “old ale”, there was only one style – “ale”. Regular readers will remember that I’ve already talked here about how “ale” continued to be a different, less hopped drink to “beer”, not just a synonym, right through to at least the end of the 19th century, and here about how “ale” sold mild, that is, freshly brewed, gradually became one of the most popular drinks, especially among the working classes, in 19th century Britain, ousting porter from top slot. And “old ale” was just the mild ale, aged. (Sometimes very aged: in February 1863 the Bristol Mercury carried an ad for “a vat of 200 barrels of very superior old ale, vatted in 1857, to be sold at 48s per barrel, for cash.” Assuming this was brewed in October 1857 it was then five years and three months old.)
Let’s repeat that. 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”, 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.
You’ll be wanting some evidence for these assertions. Here’s an ad for Waltham Brothers’ brewery in Stockwell, South London from 1889. You’ll note that of the four grades of X ale, three are called simply “mild ale” while the fourth, XXXX Strong Ale (with a price per barrel of 66 shillings, implying an original gravity of around 1090 or so, north of seven per cent alcohol by volume) is described as “old or mild” – meaning that the brewery would sell it to you aged or fresh. The fact that the next grade down (46/- a barrel, around 1055 OG) is called XXK, not XXX, is meant to suggest, I think, that you could use this one as a “keeping” beer if you wanted, giving it a bit of age; while the bottom two grades, the XX (around 1050 OG) and the X (probably not much above 1040 OG) were “proper” milds, meant to be drunk quickly. This is found with other brewers’ beers: Bass ales in 1892 were being advertised by one retailer in Bristol with the No 1 and No 2 called “Strong Ale”, the No 3 “Strong or Mild Ale” and Nos 4 to 7 just “Mild Ale”. I doubt, incidentally, that Waltham Brothers actually brewed four ales: most likely they brewed X and XXXX and the other two were blends, at different percentages, of those.
Much brewery advertising, of course, assumed that the customer knew lower grades of ale were for drinking mild, and higher grades for drinking old, and only spelled it out where there might be confusion. Here’s one from Smith and Bruce’s Barrack Ground Brewery, Colchester, Essex in December 1869 where the X and XX Ale go undescribed, but the XXX Ale (around 1060OG) is available “Old and Mild” – my emphasis. (That curious trademark on the right, incidentally, looks to incorporate a Sergeant Major’s pace stick, an officer’s swagger stick and what I’m guessing is a bell.)
The fullest early commentary on the mild/old/barley wine continuum comes from the British Medical Journal in its issue for January 15 1870, when it conducted analyses of 11 “old ales” and 16 “mild ales” from a variety of mostly well-known brewers. I’ve given the table in full, because it’s fascinating. The “old ale” list begins with two versions of Old Burton Ale from Samuel Allsopp and Sons, the first sample of which is a hefty 10.8 per cent alcohol by volume, with a final gravity of almost 1040.4, that likely tremendous sweetness countered by an acidity, in the nine-months old version, of 0.32 per cent, about the same as would be found in a contemporary stout.
(A small aside or diversion: Allsopp’s Old Burton Ale retailed in the Feathers Tavern, Hand Court, Holborn, on the edge of the City of London, for six pence a pint, three times as much as a pint of mild, the BMJ recorded. This was obviously one of the go-to outlets in London for strong old Burton. More than 60 years earlier, around 1796, the journalist and author John Mathew Gutch, a friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb, said that he and his friends “were at this time in the habit meeting at the Feathers in Hand Court, Holborn, to drink nips of Burton Ale, as they were called. One of our friends, who was particularly fond of the beverage, was called ‘Nipperkin’.” The nip or nipperkin – a half pint or less – seems to have been the standard measure for strong Burton. Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796 said that a pub not very far from the Feathers called the Peacock, in Gray’s Inn Lane, “where Burton ale is sold in nyps”, was known as the “nyp-shop”. By the 20th century, at least, a “nip” was the name in the UK for a bottle containing one third of an Imperial pint, six and two thirds fluid ounces, 190ml, the usual size, until the introduction of EU standard measures, for bottles of barley wine.)
Certainly the BMJ table suggests a definite overlap between “old and “mild”. Ignoring the most acid “old ale”, the average acidity for the olds was 0.25 per cent. Ignoring the most acid “mild”, the average acidity for the milds was 0.2 per cent, 20 per cent less. The average alcohol level for the olds was 7.65 per cent by weight, 9.56 per cent by volume. The average alcohol level for the milds was 5.39 per cent by weight, 6.73 per cent by volume, almost 30 per cent less. The average percentage of extract for the olds (important for flavour and mouthfeel) was 8.49 per cent, though the average for the four-pence-a-pint olds it was 6.32 per cent, and for the milds 5.36 per cent, 15 per cent less.
However, there were milds stronger than the weakest olds, olds less acid than even the average mild, and olds with less extract than the average mild. So how did the BMJ, or, more likely, the pubs and retailers who sold it the ales for testing, decide in which category, old or mild, to put each ale? The only answer, I suggest, is that they were judging on the one parameter not given in this table: age. If it was young it was most likely to be labelled “mild”, if it had some age it was labelled “old”. The clue is that generally the “old ales” were more acid than the “milds” – just a couple of the 4d “olds” break this rule, both with gravities in the 1085-1092 region, and I suggest these were XXXXX ales, generally sold as “old”, that had not aged enough and were still in a mild condition. Because they were destined to be aged and sold as “old”, however, that, I suspect, was what they were sold to the BMJ as.
The beers described as “Old Ale” come from four different parts of Britain: Burton upon Trent (two different brewers), Scotland (one, which I’m guessing is Andrew Roy of the Alloa brewery, though this had been acquired by Archibald Arrol in 1866), London (three, two old porter brewers and one traditional ale brewer, Charrington) and Wiltshire (the “long-celebrated” Kennet Ale, made by a maltster and brewer called George Butler in the village of West Kennet, near Devizes). The “old ales” represented therefore, at least four different styles of beer, assuming the London brewers’ beers were all the same: Burton Ale, Scotch Ale, London Ale and Kennet Ale.
The second beer in the BMJ‘s list of Old Ales, you’ll have noticed, is “Bass’s Barley Wine”. This must be Bass’s No 1 Burton Ale, still brewed at almost exactly the same strength on the old Bass site in Burton today. The BMJ’s is the earliest mention I have been able to find of a specific brewer’s beer being called a “barley wine”. The phrase “barley wine” certainly occurs in English before 1870. But it appears only as a direct translation of the οἶνος κριθἶνος that Xenophon, in his book Anabasis said he and an army of Greeks found the Armenians drinking around 400BC, or as a poetical synonym for “ale”, for example in Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653. William Brande, in The Town and Country Brewery Book in 1830, wrote about “Barley wine and Dorchester beer” brewed at a huge ten bushels of malt to the barrel. But the phrase was used rarely enough as a description for beer that a cookery book published in 1853 could give a recipe for “barley wine” as a “very strengthening” drink that was literally wine (sherry, in fact) added to barley gruel, boiled down and flavoured with cinnamon.
Shortly after the BMJ‘s survey of old ales that listed “Bass’s Barley Wine”, in March 1871, an advertisement appeared in a newspaper called Bell’s Life in London for the “matchless home-brewed barley wine” available only at the White Lion, Digbeth, Birmingham, inserted by “E. Roberts, proprietors and brewer of this justly celebrated ale”. Since it’s not clear whether Bass itself was referring to its No 1 in 1870 as a barley wine, it looks as if Mr Roberts was the first person to make something that the brewery itself named barley wine.
If it’s not clear when Bass starting using the term “barley wine”, it wasn’t a description limited to Bass among the Burton brewers. In an article in Murray’s Magazine from November 1888, beer from another Burton brewery was given the label, when the anonymous writer, after a trip round Bass’s, added in a footnote: “Gratitude forbids me to forget that even Bass could not surpass the perfection of a glass of barley wine, Chateau Salt, vintage 1882, that I tasted in the ’lowance store of the firm of that name,” the firm being Thomas Salt & Co, one of the larger but, today, lesser-known establishments in Victorian Beertown-upon-Trent.
Apart from the BMJ in 1870, the early examples I’ve been able to find of mentions of “Bass & Co’s No 1 ale or Barley Wine” or the like are from retailers, such as an advertisement from a local grocer on the front page of the Essex County Standard using that description in December 1891. In fact, after Mr Roberts of Birmingham in 1871, the first time any actual brewer seems to use the term, it’s one of Bass’s Burton upon Trent rival, Ind Coope, advertising the beers available at its local stores in the Wrexham Advertiser in North Wales on Saturday September 1 1900. Among the bottled beers available, as well as “<><> East India Pale” (Double Diamond to you), was “No 1, Barley Wine”, half pints only, 2/6 the crate. No 1 was the designation Ind Coope gave to its own top-of-the-range Burton Ale, so once again a strong Burton Ale is described as a barley wine.
In May 1907 the Daily Mail printed an advertisement for the Burton Brewery Co, like Thomas Salt another “second tier” Burton brewer, for a list of beers including “No 1 Mild Ale”. “No 2 Mild Ale” and “No 8 Barley Wine” at two shillings and four pence a gallon. The first two were almost certainly the brewery’s bottom-of-the-range Burton Ales, the No 8 Barley Wine, like Bass No 1 and Ind Coope No 1, its strongest Burton. Another brewer with a brewery in Burton, Truman Hanbury and Buxton, had its top beer described as “No 1 Burton (Barley Wine)” in an article in the Daily Mail in October 1907, and later on in the 20th century Truman’s were using the name “No 1 Burton Barley Wine” on bottle labels.
The earliest Bass labels for No 1 call it just a “Strong Ale”. At some point Bass stopped putting “Strong Ale” on its bottles of No 1 and starting using the term “barley wine” instead. When this first happened I don’t know, but the first time I have been able to find Bass using the description “barley wine” on a bottle label was in North America, where from at least 1903 it was selling “Bass & Co’s Barley Wine – the Royal Tonic”, and actually advertising it in medical journals as suitable to be prescribed for “Nursing Mothers and in cases of Anaemia, Chlorosis, Leanness, Malnutrition, Indigestion, Insomnia, Neurasthenia, and debility from any cause.” The label bore the name “Barley Wine” without the “No 1” designation, but it showed the diamond trademark Bass used for its Burton Ales, including No 1.
Brewers from Burton did not all rush to call their top-of-the-range Burton Ale a barley wine. Marston Thompson and Evershed advertised their Owd Rodger Burton Ale, 15/- a firkin, “long matured in our cellars”, in the Daily Mirror in 1910 simply as a Strong Ale, the same description originally used by Bass. Later, labels for Owd Rodger called it a “barley wine”, but this description seems to have vanished from the current bottles. The BJCP insists, however, that it’s an “old ale”. I say nothing.
All the same, we can declare with some confidence that, with the exception of Mr Roberts of Birmingham in 1871, all the earliest beers to be called “barley wine” were very strong Burton Ales. But did “barley wine” as a name thus delineate a style? The problem here is that “Burton Ale” was the name of the style, which, as I said in the chapter on Burton Ale in Amber Gold and Black, was popular enough to be picked up and imitated across Britain, from Dorset to Northumbria (and also in New England). In particular, Burton Ale was a big seller in London, where many brewers made a beer they called “Burton Ale” – and the alternative name for Burton Ale in London was “old”.
The journalist Maurice Gorham, writing in the book Back to the Local in 1949, said that “old” and “Burton” were used as synonyms “quite arbitrarily. For instance, Burton (or old) mixed with mild ale is usually asked for as old-and-mild, not mild-and-Burton … but if you want to mix Burton with bitter you ask for bitter-and-Burton (or BB).” Similarly, an article in the Canadian magazine Saturday Night in 1957 said in an article called “The Charm of Britain”, that “There are many varieties of beer; the best-known are bitter beer (“bitter” for short), mild ale (“mild”), old ale (“Burton”), stout and lager.” And Ron Pattinson’s researches show that the London brewers Barclay Perkins called their KK “Burton” when it was on draught and “Southwarke Old Ale” when it was in bottle. So: a beer that, in its strongest manifestation is called, at least sometimes, a barley wine, is also called an old ale. And the weakest Burton Ales, such as Bass’s No 5 and No 6, were sold under the label “mild”. So, that’s one style of beer, Burton Ale, covering “mild”, “old ale” and “barley wine”.
Nor were the Burton brewers the only ones to call their strong beers “barley wine”. The Salford brewer Groves & Whitnall published a pamphlet called A Short History of our National Beverage some time evidently in the 1930s in which, talking about its own beers, it said: “Our strong Old Ale or ‘Barley Wine’ stands pre-eminent and apart from all others …” You’ll spot that Groves & Whitnall is using “Barley Wine” as a synonym for “Old Ale”. But most of the time, from what I have been able to discover, until the 1950s, when brewers made a strong beer they didn’t call it barley wine. Many marketed their strong beer as “Old Something” – Old Tom was particularly popular in the North of England. Several, such as Samuel Smith’s of Tadcaster and Phipps of Northampton, used the name “stingo”, defined by one dictionary in 1822 as “old strong beer, old ale”. Those with a college tradition to haul in, such as Dales of Cambridge, might call their top-of-the-range brew “audit ale”, after the famous strong ales made by the breweries at colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. A large number simply named their strongest beer Strong Ale, like Tennant Brothers of Sheffield’s No 1 Strong Ale.
It was Tennants, in fact, who seem to have popularized the name “barley wine”, when, in 1952, the company’s head brewer Harold Burkenshaw, developed what the company called “a new type of sparkling barley wine”, a “unique product”, much paler than its No 1 Strong Ale, which it sold under the name Gold Label. Within two years the company’s chairman was telling shareholders at the annual meeting that sales of Gold Label were “rapidly assuming semi-national proportions”. The success of Gold Label brought a rush of imitators as other brewers brought out pale strong beers under the name “barley wine”, and led to a few original darker strong ales, such as Ind Coope’s Arctic Ale, Watney’s Stingo and Tennant’s own No 1 Strong Ale being rebadged as barley wines. But as an advert for Gold Label in 1967 boasted, these were “ordinary dark brown barley wines”.
The same ad revealed that Gold Label was being made from Proctor barley, one of the parents of Maris Otter, matured for “several months”, chill-filtered and then blended “to smooth out the edges”. Gold Label, which was advertised as “Strong as a double Scotch, less than half the price” – another old beer slogan that couldn’t possibly be used now – was recognised by the Guinness Book of Records in 1966 as the strongest beer regularly brewed in Britain, at 10.6 per cent abv, but only because, as the International Brewers’ Journal complained at the time, the Birmingham brewer Mitchell & Butler’s Strong Ale had been “so cruelly killed” two or three years earlier.
So where does that leave us in trying to decide whether there is a genuine line that can be drawn between beers that can be called “barley wine” and beers that can be called “old ale”? I fear that there isn’t – that in the category “strong ales” a division between “barley wine” and “old ale” doesn’t stand up, certainly not historically, and not in practice today, either. Tentatively, I’d suggest that a more practical division would separate Burton-style strong ales, such as No 1, Owd Rodger and Fuller’s 1845 into one group, dark strong ales, such as Robinson’s Old Tom, Thomas Hardy Ale and Gale’s Prize Old Ale into a second group (one descended, I’d say, more clearly from the original idea of an “old ale” in the pre-20th century conception of what that meant**) and pale strong ales such as Gold Label, Golden Pride/Vintage Ale and the rest into a third.
*Oh, all right – there is now. But it’s almost entirely a post-First World War construct, and has very little resemblance, if any, to anything sold as “mild” a century and more ago.
** Addendum – that is to say, XXXX Strong Ale and the like, offered by almost every brewer outside Burton.