BRITISH SIPPING ALES

Although punitive taxation on beer in the UK limited originality of its brewers in the 20th century, the country has nonetheless a rich heritage of creating stronger ale styles, a history revived nowadays more abroad than in its home country.

Central to that history was the largely defunct tradition of storing stronger beers in large oak barrels, or tuns, either at the brewery or on premises owned by beer merchants.  These became known as ‘keeping’ ales and were often designated by the abbreviation ‘K’.  Older beers became KK or KKK, roughly in line with their age in years, paralleling an older system of marking beers as X, XX and XXX depending on their strength.  The longer aged the beer, the more likely it would be used primarily for blending with younger beer prior to barrelling, a technique that survived on a small scale in one UK brewery and a few Belgian ones, and is starting to be revived. 

See also: Imperial Stout

British Barley Wine

A British barley wine (8.0-12.0% ABV) should possess great richness of character, with vinous or even port-like notes, though they lack the full-on aged elements of an Old Ale.  Their core can be earthy, floral or marmalade-like.  Most are dark, though exclusive use of pale malts can mean some manage to be deep golden. The best will age gracefully in the bottle for many years, and may be vintage-dated.  Hefty beers have long been produced in the UK, though the term Barley Wine has not been spotted before 1872, when Bass launched their No. 1. 

Old Ale (or Winter Warmer)

A proper Old Ale (6.0-9.0% ABV) should be dark and malt-driven, with some characteristics of aging, such as port or Madeira-like notes or even some lactic acidity.  Old Ales used the oak-aged versions of Mild Ale, in the days when these were typically ±6% ABV, the older versions being conditioned in oak for anything up to three years, developing a tart, vinous character from the build up of lactic acid and other products of ageing.  In 20th century Britain the term ‘Old’ became used as a marketing term for some slightly stronger dark Milds, which is misleading.  A few examples of the original style still exist but struggle due to the cost of maintaining a temperature-controlled chamber of oak tuns and the lack of familiarity of modern palates with aged flavours. 

Scotch Ale (or Wee Heavy)

Rich, malty and caramel-sweet with little hop presence, a full-strength Scotch Ale (8.0-10.0% ABV) makes a great dessert beer.  Originally malt-flooded, the 19th century likely saw it absorb caramelised sugars from new sugar refineries on the banks of the Clyde.  Peaty and smoked flavours are not an authentic feature of the style and most bottle-conditioning is inadvisable.  Strong dark ales have been sold in Scotland since the late 1700s and survived the 20th century in the export trade to Belgium and France.  The best-known domestic brand started as ‘12 Guinea Ale’ (or 252/) and became Fowler’s Wee Heavy, meaning ‘small & strong’.  The first new example came to Scotland with the opening of Traquair House brewery in 1965, arguably the world’s first ‘craft’ brewery. 

> The beer styles of Europe and beyond > SIPPING STRENGTH ALES > BRITISH SIPPING ALES


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