So what IS the difference between barley wine and old ale?

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.

Mild and strong Burton in the Ipswich Journal, 1871

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.

100 thoughts on “So what IS the difference between barley wine and old ale?

  1. Wow, nice article. And some people think that beer is a simple thing… Not so realted to the post (but somewhat), do you know if the Colne Spring Ale, inoculated with a pure culture of Brett, was aged in wooden vats, or more modern vessl? I’m actually working very hard on this subject, and the info would be welcome.

  2. Another superb article!

    One of my constant problems with entering homebrew competitions is deciding which category best fits the beer I have brewed. It really makes you wonder how they came up with some of the nonsense for beer styles.

  3. In this 1862 Lancet piece, the authors clearly consider there are three categories of beer (excluding porter and stout): pale ale which they also termed bitter beer; mild beer; and strong beer which they also considered to be Burton ale and strong ale. They also referred to old ale when considering the super-long aged (a decade plus!) Salt No. 1 but the way they refer to it leads me to think that these terms – old ale, Burton ale, strong beer, strong ale – were synonymous in their minds. But of course actual practice of brewers would have shown exceptions to this schema.

    Barley wine I think meant a very strong ale. It could have been applied to a strong stout but wasn’t due to the traditions of nomenclature obtaining in London whence porter had lately originated. It seems not to have been of interest to Scots brewers, perhaps because their strong ale lost favour has the 1800’s wore on.

    Most barley wines were old ales I think, but not quite all, since as you have shown, there were mild ales sold very strong. So barley wine is a useful term still to cover any very strong beer (except stout), but where a brewer makes pasteurized and naturally-conditioned versions of the same beer, it seems reasonable to call the former one a barley wine.



    1. This is where I have a problem. This supposed difference between “beer” and “ale” is nonsense. Complete and utter nonsense.

      Beer is the overall name for the drink that is beer. Just as wine is the overall name for that drink. A port is a wine. Barolo is wine. Claret is a wine. Sparkling wine is wine.

      As such, stout is beer, IPA is beer, mild is beer, barley wine is beer, Kolsch is beer. All are also ales as they are made with top fermenting ale yeasts.

      Bock is beer, Pilsner is beer. Neither are ales, but lagers as they are fermented with bottom-fermenting lager yeasts and are, therefore lagers, and beers.

      This labeling of some ales as ales as separate from being beer and vice versa just seems dumb to me. They’re ALL beer. Some beers are ales, some are lagers. All variations thereof come under the umbrella term, “beer.”

      1. Your problem is, Dave, that you are taking the modern American use of the word “ale” – any beer made with a top-fermenting yeast – and arrogantly declaring it to be the one true definition of ale for all time. Which it isn’t. Here, for example, is how the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1773 defined the word: “ALE, a fermented liquor obtained from an infusion of malt and differing only from beer in having a less proportion of hops.” When one is talking about the history of brewing, it’s important to remember that British brewers used “ale” and “beer” to mean different things, the two drinks being descended from the originally completely unhopped English alu and the continental hopped bere that arrived in Britain in the 15th century, and that, for example, “porter” was called a beer, not an ale, because it was heavily hopped. Brown beer and brown ale, to an 18th century brewer, were different drinks. If you don’t understand that point, you won’t understand why, for example, London in the 18th and early 19th centuries had porter brewers, and a completely separate group of ale brewers. Widening the definition of “ale” far beyond the historic meaning of the word, the way Americans try to, is confusing, when trying to write historical narratives about the drink, and, indeed, unnecessary – there’s a perfectly adequate expression to cover everything from Kolsch to stout, and that’s “warm-fermented beers”.

        1. Thanks for your reply. I accept that in the 1700’s, definitions might have been a little different. I also accept the use of archaic definitions when writing an historical piece pertaining to such times.

          I do point this out, however, and I quote you: ” there’s a perfectly adequate expression to cover everything from Kolsch to stout, and that’s “warm-fermented beers”.”

          Yes, my point exactly. According to 18th century linguistics, beer was inherently heavily-hopped. According to your quote, you believe it to be something different altogether including both beers that are heavily hopped and those that are not.

          Further to that, my own problem isn’t so much what terminology was used in the 18th century as I am with what is used now.

        2. Actually many of us Americans completely understand the traditional differentiation between beer and ale as presence or absence of hops, respectively, while at the same time also noting that both language and brewing have evolved over time.

  4. Really good stuff Martyn. There are fewer constants in the brewing world than we were led to believe – I raised an eyebrow when you brought mild into the equation but actually it rings true. I’ve spoken to a number of brewers recently who’ve been at pains to explain that their milds are not the same as what 20th century drinkers came to expect, but more in the Victorian style.

    I wonder if the Owd Roger ad contains the earliest documented reference to “real ale”?

  5. “I wonder if the Owd Roger ad contains the earliest documented reference to ‘real ale’?”

    Ha! Good spot, Graham. Very ironic that Marston’s should predate Camra by 60-something years in its use of the phrase.

  6. Fuller’s Golden Pride and Fuller’s Vintage Ale are not the same beer, as the latter is bottle-conditioned and the former not.

    Hence Golden Pride does not lend itself to ageing whereas Vintage Ale does.

    1. If two beers have the same make-up, though, even if one is bottle conditioned and the other not, it’s nonsense to call one a barley wine and the other an old ale. And when Fuller’s puts the beer on cask, it’s my belief that sometimes the brewery calls it Vintage Ale and sometimes Golden Pride – though if someone from Fuller’s would like to comment, I’m prepared to be told I’m talking out of my arris.

      1. Given that Vintage Ale is different every year, how can it possibly be “the same” as Golden Pride? That makes no sense at all unless GP changes every year too, which I can tell you from many years of experience that it does not.

        That one clumsy quote from Protz has a lot to answer for.

        1. Because it’s brewed to the same quantities of hops and malt, same boil times, and so on. The sources of the ingredients may be different, but it’s the same recipe. So in so far as Vintage Ale is made to the same recipe as Golden Pride, except for the bottle-conditioning, it’s “the same” as Golden Pride.

          1. Oh mine, then I suppose one will have to start defining what a “recipe” stands for and means in the overall production of beers (or anything), that it can exclude the specification of the ingredients, account for only preparing and processing, but still determine/define the end product; but can it? The “same” recipe in one year results in a lighter-coloured beer with a floral hop-defined fragrance and less fruit esters but in another year renders a darker beer with a pungent resinous and peppery hop aroma and loads of overripe fruit overtones… As each year the “ingredients”, not just their sources, required by the “same” recipe do very significantly for the Vintage Ale series. I can’t imagine Mr. Keeling say to the staff, “just use light-coloured (pale) malts, any English hops, boil it how many times and add hops in what ways and so on – then label it as Vintage Ale. No one will care about the difference.” Surely, the “ingredients” plus the “preparation and processing procedures” (what you call “recipe” here) together meaningfully define an end product (Vintage Ale, a name so vague as the product based on the same concept at best can taste so differently), I would’ve thought? Thus, Golden Pride could be the same as “a” Vintage Ale when the ingredients also coincide (regardless of bottle-conditioning), whereas a Vintage Ale could be different to another Vintage where the ingredients diverse. Of course, this nuanced debate on “same vs. different” takes nothing away from your excellent article above. It really shed great insight on how terminologies develop from old practices and are in turn applied purposefully in modern contexts. I truly enjoy reading it.

  7. The reference to “real ale” is interesting. I don’t think it is used in the sense in which CAMRA uses the term, since Owd Roger, assuming it was bottle-conditioned in this period, would not have been alone of course in this respect. But the term delivers a truism, which is that strong ale was a country drink before it was a city drink. The ad skilfully evokes a time when beer was non-existent or new.


    1. Yes, I’m sure this was an Edwardian appeal to ideas of “the real ale of England”, rather than “the [REAL ALE] of England”, but it’s amusing to find Marston’s evoking it, especially as, I believe, Owd Rodger was only introduced/named as such in 1908, a couple of years before this ad appeared.

  8. On the Smith & Bruce’s ad, both of those trademarks are Masonic symbols. The one on the left is the good old square & compasses, and on the right is a compasses, level, and something else behind the level. It could be some kind of baton.

    I’m not well-versed enough in the Masonic symbolism in Great Britain at the time to know if that’s for a specific Masonic order, but I bet the lodges that bought their beer threw some great parties.


    1. I’m sure you’re right about the left-hand symbols – definitely Masonic. Messers Smith & Bruce were On The Square. (Funnily, both 19th century and earlier brewers and Masons wore/wear aprons – see my earlier post mentioning the Happy Families card showing Mr Bung the Brewer.) I’m not so sure about the right-hand symbols: a pace-stick would make a lot of sense as part of the trademark for an establishment caled the Barrack Ground Brewery.

  9. Another fantastic article, Martyn. Many thanks for sharing this info.

    After 40+ years of reading the same bad information as everyone else…information that has been endlessly paraphrased and passed along for decades with little regard for true scholarship…I find it refreshing and quite enlightening to see research so thorough and truly fact based.

    Keep on turning the beer geeks’ world upside down with your revelations!
    I’m hooked!

  10. Here’s a question, Martyn. Why was Barack Ground’s table ale more costly than its table beer? With three types of beer (table, AK and EIPA) and four of ale (table, X, XX and XXX), it is hard to think the table beer was lower gravity than the table ale although maybe it was. I would think too a table ale would use less hops than a table beer.

    Just by the by, the XXX might have been a blend of old and new beer at this particular brewery but in the other case (where the disjunctive “or” was used) clearly that was not so.


  11. You need to see the stuff I’ve collected on X Ales and K Ales. I would argue that there was a definable difference between the two.

    You don’t see it in the analyses published in the 19th century because it’s all to do with the hopping. Which you can’t see in those figures.

    When they got into Ale brewing, the big Porter brewers did it in quite a rational way. Just as with their Porters, they had Runners and Keepers. They brewed X, XX, XXX and XXXX. And KK, KKK and KKKK (or XXK, XXXK and XXXXK). They weren’t identical beers. Though XX and KK (and XX and KKK, XXXX and KKKK) were the same gravity the hopping was very different. The Keeping Ales had, on average, about 50% more hops.

    But Barley Wine and Old Ale – no way of picking those two apart. Though you could argue that the Gold Label type of pale Barley Wine is definably different from an Old Ale.

  12. Rather than blending beers to get X, XX, XXX and XXXX, they most likely party-gyled. Really strong Ales like XXXX were usually party-gyled with X Ale, just for the sake of efficiency. I’ve seen various combinations of the others party-gyled.

  13. Vintage has one other difference. We select the best raw materials for Vintage which might mean ( and always has so far) it would use different varieties of hops. Therefore Vintage in cask is different in that respect.

      1. I couldn’t agree more. Actually, the main differences were strictly local – the brewers from Oudenaarde had slightly different raw products, different yeasts, and would use other vessels for the ageing mixbeers, than those of the Flemish Ardennes, or those of Brabant. But essentially, they all made brown sour ale. In Brabant, they mixed it with lambic, as it was readily available. Etc. Now for some historic research in the matter.

  14. […] This article over at Zythophile really struck a note with me, as you may previously remember my debacle when attempting to taste the Bell’s Third Coast Beer.  As you may recall, I picked up the “Third Coast Old Ale,” assuming it was the same.  Later, I simply classified it as a “seasonal barley wine from Bell’s.”  This article is a great read. […]

          1. What, pray, about my statement would make me an idiot? I am no fan of “adjunct lagers” either, but I’m detecting that there is a belief expressed in this post (and implied in your previous reply to me) that English beer/ale/whateveryouwannacallit is inherently superior to beers brewed in the US. This notion could not be more false. American breweries are at the cutting edge of brewing and creativity. Old styles are being interpreted in a way that makes them better by breweries such as Dogfish Head, Bell’s and Founder’s. Don’t get me wrong here, I am a lover of traditional English beers, but there is no question that the US leads the way right now and has done for the last 10 years. Aside from BrewDog in Scotland, I don’t know of anyone in the UK who is doing anything particularly intriguing these days. Sure, the trad beers are fantastic, but, like I do with wine, I get bored drinking the same style of beer day in and day out.

          2. What, pray, about my statement would make me an idiot?

            See below

            I’m detecting that there is a belief expressed in > this post (and implied in your previous reply to me) that English beer/ale/whateveryouwannacallit is inherently superior to beers brewed in the US.

            Then you’re detecting something that simply isn’t there. I am a huge admire of American brewing creativity, and many of my favourite brewers, and beers, are American. I don’t believe I have ever written anything that even implies that English beers are inherently superior to American, because I don’t believe this to be true. Nor do I believe that American beers are intrinsically superior to English.

            American breweries are at the cutting edge of brewing and creativity.

            Some are, and so are some British breweries. But the cutting edge is not always the place I wish to be in my beer drinking experiences

            Old styles are being interpreted in a way that makes them better

            That’s your opinion. There’s nothing wrong with the old styles: there’s nothing wrong with many of the new interpretations. But they’re not automatically “better” than the older versions, just different.

            I am a lover of traditional English beers, but there is no question that the US leads the way right now and has done for the last 10 years.

            That’s the kind of arrogance that makes the rest of the globe laugh. There are a large number of innovative brewers around the world, from New Zealand to Norway. It’s a long way from the truth to say that the only innovation in brewing is happening in the US. But the major problem with your position is that you come across as thinking that innovation is the only thing a brewer should be good at.

            Aside from BrewDog in Scotland, I don’t know of anyone in the UK who is doing anything particularly intriguing these days.

            If the standard of brewery achievement you want the UK to live up to is BrewDog, then I’m afraid you simply don’t understand the British beer market. British beer drinkers are very unlike American beer drinkers. Very, very few of them want to drink the brews that you admire. Nor do the overwhelming majority want “intriguing”, they want solid, dependable regularity. But there are certainly brewers experimenting with different ideas in the UK besides BrewDog: Thornbridge, Meantime, Sharps, Hardknott, Marble, Crown Brewery, Beowulf, Oakham, Dark Star, Saints & Sinners, Bartrams, to name just some.

            Sure, the trad beers are fantastic, but, like I do with wine, I get bored drinking the same style of beer day in and day out.

            Well, I get bored, too, so I like to vary between mild, bitter, golden ale, porter, Burton, stout, barley wine, old ale, brown ale, heather ale … and that’s before I’ve even left the British tradition …

          3. OOPS… Roosters, Thornbridge, St. Austells’, Marble,… Plenty of choice – start discovering, I’d say.

  15. Martyn said, “I like to vary between mild, bitter, golden ale, porter, Burton, stout, barley wine, old ale, brown ale, heather ale …”

    So mild, old ale and barley wine are distinct then! and porter and stout (remind me – what’s the difference).

  16. Very interesting and well researched article. As a 20+ year homebrewer and a 12 year certified BJCP judge I don’t necessarily take the guidelines as seriously as most. As a judge, I appreciate the ability to refer to very specific guidelines in which to score beers. As a homebrewer, I brew what I want/like and that’s the beauty of the hobby. If I want to brew to enter competitions I enjoy the challenge of brewing to a very specific, well defined style. In the end, it’s all good.

  17. OK, this article was fascinating! I’ve been brewing for over 17 years now and this U.S. brewer has always had problems discerning the nuancesof Old Ale, Barleywine and Burton Ales. This is what I’m walking away with : Barleywines and Burton Ales are both strong tawny highly hopped ales with “perhaps” lower final gravities than Old Ales but not exclusively!. That’s what I perceived from some of the above tables. Obviously both styles can be “laid down” because of their high alcohol and high hopping rates although with Old Ales, most of the hop charges are mostly for bittering, because they were “designed” to either be laid down or blended with less mature ales(milds?) to “harden” or make “sound” at the pub. Another nugget, I’m walking away with here is that the semantics of the day that the distributors and breweries were using was what the common beer drinker of the day could understand and relate to. A kind of “branding” if you will for they were in sales mode. Another distinction of Old Ales “I believe” is that fermentable adjuncts are welcome in the kettle where Barleywines(and most likely Burton Ales) were all malt brews. Thanks again for all of the insight Martyn!

  18. Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic! Surely a piece of academia that will satisfy the inquiring few, but absolutely necessary for the education of a whole lot of us. Interesting notes on mild ales being synonymous with strong ales (I may have misstated that). It seems like another misunderstanding of language. Mild did not (nor does it today) mean “not strong”, just that the object that is mild is not harsh or disagreeable. Given that it seems like an easy jaunt to accept that high alcohol beers that were aged would indeed be considered ‘mild’. Who here hasn’t had a young high-octane beer – they’re offensive to the palate. Give the same beer a year, two or five at many of the offensive qualities will have disappeared and the liquid itself become mild on the palate. Cheers, professor. Thanks for another fantastic lesson on beer the way it was once understood.

  19. Hello again,
    Here is a link to a story from today’s Bloomberg News. You will have to scroll down a bit to read the part about the world’s oldest beer. I think its fantastic that researchers want to analyze the beer. But the writer – once again – without knowledge of the subject matter concludes that these samples are the world’s oldest. There is no excuse for poor research in my opinion.
    Especially when we’re discussing BEER.

  20. Interesting. I must say i have been enjoying your hard work on this and all your other previous topics.
    But just to get it straight:
    The folklore i have heard about barley wine was that it was a style “invented” to counter the rationing/embargo/public hatred against the frenchies and their “fermented grape juice” during the Napoleonic wars. I guess i am asking. Was barley wine ever a british substitute for french red wine??

    1. Very strong old ales were made by private brewers – the gentry and squirearchy who brewed on their private estates – in the 18th century to be drunk in small quantities as a substitute for brandy, rather than wine.

        1. No, those strong old ales were only around 11 or 12 per cent alcohol, probably, but they were “substitutes” for brandy in the sense that they were something relatively strong and sweetish for sipping at the end of a meal/evening

  21. very thorough sir, historically. right now, what is it? i am drinking an American barleywine, two long weeks at work and sixty hours each bad week. taste is excellent because older, heavier drinkers prefer this, and alcoholic content is 10+. us old hard drinkers prefer this too. perhaps this is what the century-ago people were thinking. a little strong fuck-me-up of admirable quality. don’t make complexity where none is necessary. the only question is one of quality regardless of price. I’ll take quality every time because I can afford price… would most. same now as before. you are very informative and knowledgeable. please do not omit the simple parameters that i did mention. thank you, sir.

  22. I recently bought a beveled, pub advertising mirror (with wood frame) in Ireland that says: ” “Bass” No.1 Barley Wine in bottle”.It has the red diamond trade mark and Bass is written with a different style than cursive logo. Can you tell me anything about it?

  23. I used to drink West End barley wine made in Adelaide, South Australia in the 70’s.
    I asked the brewery about it and this is the reply:

    “Hi Martin
    Thank you for your question regarding West End Barley Wine. I have done
    a search through our archives and found the following information.

    West End Barley Wine was produced in 1971 at the West End Brewery with
    the first and only brew on 20/10/71. The last sales of the 185ml bottle
    were in 1973.”

    (I still have one bottle)
    Only one brewing! Think I drank most of it!!! 🙂

  24. A most excellent article, well researched. As a north of England drinker of the world’s best. Can I please be allowed my four penneth? When I first started drinking in Manchester pubs (1961), almost all sales were of mild ale. This was a dark, low malt, low hopped and often a flat ale. It was very open to abuse, as the slop’s tray would always be poured back into the mild barrel. Bitter, a straw coloured, bitter hopped ale was the choice of we younger drinkers, much as lager became in later times.
    The top selling mild was undisputedly ‘Chesters’, known by all as the ‘fighting ale’.
    There were too many bitters to choose a leader, but Wilsons, Boddingtons and Holts were up there. Do not judge them now though as takeovers and economy’s have made them shadows of their former selves. Hail to Boddingtons when it was owned by the Boddingtons family. It was as individual as a Manchester dartboard, very bitter hopped and nectar. Boddingtons today is not Boddingtons, sorry.
    My point, before I forget it. All beers were known as ales, the name was interchangeable. Nobody in the brewing trade was concerned with a particular title for a beer and it differed from area to area. Individual brewers would view a product and decide how to market it. Pub ales would generally be low ABV (3.8 Boddingtons) so you could drink more in front of your mates, before you fell over. Strong ales were 5.0 and above. A barley wine was one that looked more like and, had the consistency of wine ie: the fearsome Old Tom on keg. ‘Stonkin’ but beware, monsters live here.
    Well that’s it. I would just like to send my regards to any ex-pats around the world.
    Keep drinking the world’s best brothers and sisters. Mine tonight is Marston’s Old Empire. Cheers to beer drinkers everywhere.

  25. […] coming from a post by Martyn Cornell on his blog Zythophile, where he explores the topic “So what IS the difference between barley wine and old ale?“. I also thought this would open the beer range up a little too, allowing folks to include […]

  26. I’m just getting into drinking beer, and found your blog while trying to sort out all of these “differences” as well. I couldn’t agree with you more, and think it’s so silly how people have needlessly over complicated everything and created all of this pretentious jargon for what should really be quite straightforward. Very refreshing post, I must say.

  27. The one downside of this though is that dark chocolate is
    quite bitter without the sugar content, and so one variation to this recipe if you
    do choose to go down this route is that you should
    also add in two tablespoons of a sugar free substitute into the main ingredients of the Sugar Free Chocolate Smoothie in order for it to taste good.
    ‘ Natural cleanser; blood, colon; strengthens
    gall bladder and liver. For this most basic mango recipe, you only need a cup of chopped mango, a
    cup of vanilla yogurt, a cup of crushed ice, and a tablespoon of sugar (optional since the mango
    is already ripe in itself).

  28. I didn’t find your initial argument about mild ale vs old ale to be very convincing; I see no reason why deliberate aging by the brewer can’t transform one style into another. However, your historical analysis won me over on the lack of a meaningful distinction between old ale and baleywine.

    1. I’d also say, though I know you disagree, that bottle conditioning can be transformative enough of an ale to transform it into a new style, just like brewery aging, or any other deliberate decision by the brewer.

  29. This is not a “beer” question, but kind of. I am going to make Pomegranate wine the recipe follows my question. It calls for barley water, will the end result have a beer like flavor? I have never seen a wine call for barley. I plan on making 5 gallons and the following recipe is for 1 gallon. Thank you for this site and the opportunity to ask this question.

    10-15 ripe pomegranates
    1/2 lb. barley
    3 lb. granulated sugar
    1 lemon, juiced
    1 gallon water
    wine yeast and nutrient

    Peel the fruit and remove the seed-juice sacs from the bitter white membrane dividers. Ten fruit are sufficient if 5-6 inches in diameter, 15 are required for 3-4 inch diameters. Meanwhile, bring the water to boil with the barley in it. Simmer for about 5 minutes, then strain onto the pomegranate seeds, sugar, and lemon juice in the primary fermentation vessel. Stir well. When cool (70-75 degrees F.), add the activated yeast and nutrient. Cover and allow to ferment vigorously five days, then strain into secondary fermentation jar and fit with fermentation trap. When wine clears, rack and bottle. May taste in six months, but improves at one year. [Adapted from C.J.J. Berry’s First Steps in Winemaking]

  30. Hats off to your well-researched and information dense article. Really enjoyed reading about a favorite style. Drinking a 3 year old Dogfish Olde School barleywine as I type this.

    Here’s the recipe of the last barleywine I brewed, it was extract (as my all-grain setup at the time wasn’t capable of more than about 12#):

    Maple Barleyryne
    Safale 05 – massive starter and fresh packet
    5 gallon batch, partial-mash

    13.2# rye lme
    1# white wheat
    10oz chocolate rye
    12oz special b
    1# C60

    1oz Centennial fwh
    1oz Centennial 60min
    .5 Cascade 20min
    .5 Cascade 15min
    .5 Columbus 15min
    .5 Cascade 10min
    .5 Columbus 10min
    .5 Simcoe 10min
    .5 Cascade 5min
    1oz Centennial 5min
    1oz Simcoe 5min
    1oz Cascade 0min
    1oz Centennial 0min
    .5 Simcoe 9min

    After first krausen, I added a puree of fruit
    .5# pureed dates
    .5# pureed figs

    I also added .5# maple syrup, and added the maple syrup in .5# increments over the next few days for a total of

    3# maple syrup

    The beer finished at 1.028 and approx 13.55% alcohol

  31. […] While the history of barley wine as a style of beer goes back to England, it is hard to pin down what the term actually meant back then. Nowadays, they are usually strong in both alcohol and taste, with the latter being full of big maltiness. For a glimpse into the history of the beer, and the use of the term barley wine, click here. […]

  32. Interesting. Though an important note on the word Ale which is derived from old Anglo Saxon and Nordic, Even today when you order or buy an Ale or beer in Scandinavia you will ask for an ÖL the same word Ale=ÖL So to be precise one should ask for Ale or ÖL and not Beer! Bier or Beir originates in Bavria. Haha that’s thrown a shoe in the vat! LOL.

  33. I’ve just been reading an argument about the ancient Anglo-Saxon drinks, beor, ealu, medu and win. The latter three were ale, mead and wine but there’s dispute about the nature of their “beer”. It seems to have been stronger than ale or wine.

    Tacitus described our drink as “a liquor made from barley, or other grain, fermented to produce a certain resemblance to wine.” Peter Horn says beor appears to have been a bitter drink that, while stronger than ale, was drunk from horns – so unlikely to have been any kind of spirit.

    I think it was barley wine. What do you reckon?

  34. “… barley wine [is] effectively meaningless [as a category] …”

    I just had a delicious barleywine from my local: ‘We Made It’, Willow Rock, Syracuse NY, 20% ABV (not a typo). Barleywine is a good descriptor, barleywines do exist, and barleywine is not meaningless as a category or in any other sense. Many breweries in the US eschew the term ‘old ale’ (an exception is ‘Old Foghorn’) because it is not consumer-friendly. Kind of like ‘bitter’.

    1. If you can give me a definition of “barley wine” that is specific and exclusive, that is, excludes other types of beer, other than saying barley wine simply means “very strong”, then I would accept that barley wine has a useful meaning. But you can’t.

      1. The BJCP (for one) gives very specific, detailed, and exclusive definitions for English barley wine (17D) and American barleywine (22C). Barleywine is a useful term and does not simply mean “very strong”. Moreover, many other beers may be considered very strong (imperial stout, doppelbock), but they have other descriptors that clearly distinguish them from barley wine.

        1. BTW, the reference/link to the BJCP in the original 2010 post (“So what is the difference …”) is from 2004. This is out of date, as indicated by the statement at the top of this web page: “These style guidelines are obsolete. They are maintained for historical purposes only.” The most recent (2021) guidelines list Fuller’s Golden Pride as an example of an English barley wine, but do not list Fuller’s Vintage Ale at all. I’m not sure of the reason for this change.

          However, my understanding is that the Vintage Ale is bottle conditioned and the Golden Ale is bottle pasteurized. If so, this could lead to significantly different flavors that would become more pronounced over time. Thus, the classification of one as an old ale and the other as a barley wine seems appropriate.

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