Beer Labels are not History Lessons

We’ve talked before about how certain beer descriptors have more than one equally correct meaning depending on context. Most recently, the issue arose again in a conversation about old ale and barley wine.

Those two styles, says Martyn Cornell, are not all that easily distinguished. One contributor thought he’d cracked it, however, when he pointed out that Adnams Old Ale (dark, 4.1%) bears no resemblance whatsoever to, say, Fuller’s Golden Pride (dark amber, 8.5%).

The problem is that Adnams Old Ale is the exact opposite: a mild.

Brewers can call their beers whatever they like. What’s written on the label or pumpclip of a beer today is rarely any help in understanding a beer bearing the same descriptor a hundred years ago. In fact, they can be downright confusing.

Historical (19th c.) Common understanding (what it’s come to mean) US homebrew judging guidance
Old Ale
The aged version of a beer also sold fresh (mild). Possibly strong, but not necessarily (see above): something a bit special; “warming”. Sherry/port flavours, usually dark, 6-9% abv.

12 thoughts on “Beer Labels are not History Lessons”

  1. I think this is something that needs to be reflected ore in CAMRA’s campaigning for “endangered styles” which I’m now on a discussion group for. When it gets going I’ll probably post some questions on my blog

  2. The Adnams style was quite commonplace in the South-East, with Brakspear and King & Barnes “Old Ale” and Gales 5X. All three about 4.5% ABV.

  3. You need to use the CAMCL beer style system. All beer is classified as “grog”.

    All grog falls into 2 categories of “pong” or “lout”

    In either of these categories there is “piss” or “wifebeater”

    Thus you can easily classify any beer on the basis of do you want something warm pongy with twigs in, or crisp cold and golden? Do you want to get slightly pissed or full on smashed?. There is a grog to suit, see.

  4. Steve — look forward to reading more about it. There’s no point in preserving endangered names if they’re attached to the wrong beer.

  5. Well, since I’m on that discussion group too, I’m going to try to ensure we don’t get TOO precious about terminology, or you could end up saying you can’t call anything “ale” that has hops in it, just the way Andrew Boorde did in the 1540s. I don’t desperately have problem with something called an “old ale” that someone a century ago would have called a mild, and if, as I suspect, calling it an “old ale” helps sell it where calling it a “mild” wouldn’t, then I definitely approve.

    1. Martyn — was thinking specifically of the recent Otley/Roger Protz Burton Ale gaff…

    2. I’m glad of that Martyn! In my letter of application I mentioned that I would aim to involve people with actual knowledge of the styles, rather than people that just enjoy drinking them (I guess I fall into the latter myself really). Its the fact that old ales and strong milds are lumped into the same category that i found weird

  6. I love the example of Adnams–it’s maybe the best example of the way styles evolve. First you have old and mild, terms meant to indicate beer age. Then you have old and mild, terms meant to indicate styles. Mild rises to great prominence but falls on hard times–it’s the old man’s beer. Traditional old ales fade away almost to extinction. Comes the modern era. When people are nostalgic for “old” ales, they’re thinking of what their grandfathers drank. Which was mild. So milds have become old in the sense of old-timey, not aged. Adnams have some how managed to exactly invert the meaning of the beer while making perfect sense. It’s a nightmare for beer historians, but it’s natural and organic–an example of how beers change.

    1. My head is spinning. It would be nice to have definite descriptions for different beer styles but every style seems to be so broad in taste. I had 3 different American Pale Ales last month which were so different in flavours that it would be impossible to define an American Pale Ale on the taste alone. Likewise, it happens with Stouts and Porters. Should we redefine beer styles in terms of taste or current brewing method and should we forget about history as it seems a bit of mess anyway?

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