Stale Ale

Early in their American period, after an afternoon with an unexpectedly scatty Benjamin Franklin, Messrs Mason and Dixon head on Mason’s suggestion to a tavern by the name of the Fair Anchor. It’s a bit of a dive, just how Mason likes it:

And withal, when they show up at The Fair Anchor that Night, it turns out to be Mason’s sort of place nicely,— basic and bleak, discouraging ev’ry attempt, even grunting, that might suggest Conviviality, the wood Furniture carv’d upon, splinter’d and scarr’d, the Stale-Ale as under-hopp’d, as ’tis over-water’d.

Mason & Dixon, p. 272.

Stale-Ale? The 18th century beer landscape was very different to the one we occupy now (and I don’t just mean their IPAs were clear). Legendary beer history blog Shut Up About Barclay Perkins has helped me make some sense of beer lingo as Jeremiah Dixon would have known it. At the time, much beer was aged in wooden vats and barrels to create “stale ale” (also referred to as old ale, stock ale, or keeping ale): usually strong, often reasonably dry and/or tart. This stale ale was generally served blended with unaged “mild’ ale or beer (ale and beer being distinguished at that point by their vastly different levels of hops). Discussing the history of porter and the blending of stale and mild ales, the Barclay Perkins blog cites a letter published in 1760 by a brewer writing under the rather Pynchonian pen name Obadiah Poundage. Poundage writes that in the first half of the 18th century, some drinkers “drank mild beer and stale mixed, others ale, mild beer and stale blended together at threepence per quart, but many used all stale a fourpence per pot.” The stale ale at the Fair Anchor we can surmise was watered (and over-water’d) with fresh mild beer.

Lacking a time machine, I have turned for my dose of stale ale to the mad apothecarists of 3 Ravens here in Melbourne—brewers at once reaching boldly into lost tradition and bounding imaginative frontiers into future beer. Back in 2018, they released a beer they described as a “Solera Stock Ale.” It’s a blend of various vintages of barleywine aged in French-oak wine barrels, bottled still, and intended to be drunk like a sherry or port. The oldest stock in the blend was brewed in 2011. It apparently showcases “complex oxidative characteristics reminiscent of sake or fortified wine” (which sounds like rather too much fuss for Mason’s liking). In a link to our first ever M&D drink here, the bottle even describes it as “madeirised.” Plus I’ve had it in my shed for a couple of years. Stale enough for you?

It’s mighty interesting stuff—strong, rich, and unlike any other beer I’ve had. Tastes like prunes and dates, treacle and red apple, sherry and oak and a bit of boozy spice, sweet but also strangely savoury. I enjoy it, but if they were getting anything like this, Poundage’s drinkers paying fourpence a pot for the undiluted stale ale must have been possessed of hearty constitutions.

Stale ale / pale ale blend

At the Fair Anchor though, Mason and Dixon are getting their stale ale watered with mild. I think I’ll take it that way too. For my mild ale, I’m using a nice hoppy fresh homebrewed pale ale and blending the two maybe 40/60 stale/mild. It’s yum! The citrusy hops in my pale ale blend together with the stock ale to create a rich, round, marmaladey potion with great depth and satisfying balance. I could no longer accurately describe the stuff as underhopp’d—in fact, it’s good enough even perhaps to encourage grunting (sorry Mason).

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