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Old ales and lamb stew | Beer & Culture

Robust Lamb Stew. - Contributed photo
Robust Lamb Stew.
— image credit: Contributed photo

This week in Beer & Culture, we migrate from the cool alpine forests and golden barley fields that checker southern Germany to the rolling hills, cobblestone lanes and red roofs of the United Kingdom.

From this region originates a style of beer that truly warms one’s bones as the frosts of winter nudge us toward the fireplace with loved ones to commune around strong ales and hearty meals.

The U.K. is the home of proud brewing traditions that historians and archaeologists can trace back to the Roman occupation of Celtic lands in what is now England, Wales and Scotland. These Celtic brews were made with malted grains and typically flavored with honey and meadowsweet. By the late Middle Ages, beer was almost universally drunk with every meal in northern Europe, due to the cold weather that made grape cultivation (and therefore wine production) nearly impossible. With the introduction of hops to U.K. brewing in the 1400s as a flavoring and preserving agent, ales could be kept for longer. This led to the brewing of stronger ales that were meant for aging, often called “old ales,” or in the United States, “barleywines.”

Old ales range from reddish/amber in color all the way to a dark brown that borders on opaque. They are stronger than typical, mild pub ales and are suited perfectly for sipping from snifters next to a glowing fire on a cold night.

A strong malt backbone paired with generous hops allow these beers to age well — it’s normal for them to be stored for years in cellar conditions (about 55 degrees fahrenheit, with minimal light exposure). In the world of modern brewing, it is not uncommon for breweries to age their old ales in bourbon or scotch casks prior to bottling. Lost Abbey’s Angels Share and Harvieston brewing’s Ola Dubh are prime examples.

Despite their strength, old ales aren’t as heavy in body and mouth feel as other typical winter beers like imperial stouts or porters. However, the complexity of flavor found in a well-crafted old ale can be truly remarkable. Most emanate heavy caramel and toffee flavors, followed by subtle notes of pipe tobacco, dried fruit and nuts.

The Ola Dubh from Scotland is aged on Highland Park Scotch Whiskey casks, which I highly recommend for anyone who likes notes of subtle peat smoke. Don’t be afraid to let your ale warm up to near room temperature. The Brits traditionally drink their beer at a warmer temperature than Americans, and for ale like this, many undiscovered flavors will become apparent once it is allowed to sit for some time.

Start exploring this style with some excellent options — Fuller’s Vintage Ale, Harvieston Ola Dubh and Traquiar Jacobite. Among selections from breweries this side of the pond, consider the highly praised bourbon-barrel aged Angel’s Share from Lost Abbey or Old Stock Ale by North Coast Brewing (for a cheaper option). These can be found at local bottle shop Malt and Vine, Whole Foods or on draft at Three Lions Pub or the British Pantry in Redmond.

Old ales pair wonderfully with hearty meat dishes, funky cheeses and even desserts. This robust lamb stew is sure to warm you to the core, and the rich hearty flavor of stewed lamb marries superbly with the warming properties of a bold, full-bodied old ale.

Robust Lamb Stew:

Serves 4

14 ounces of neck of lamb (lamb shank also works), diced

2 carrots, medium, chopped into rough chunks

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 leeks, chopped into rounds

1 onion, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon of tomato puree

2 ½ pints of beef stock

3 ½ ounces pearl barley

4 large potatoes, chopped into chunks

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

In a large pan, add oil, and set heat to medium. Once hot, add lamb chunks and cook for five minutes, browning the outside. Add carrots, onion leeks and garlic to the pan and cook for two to three minutes. Once the vegetables have softened, add tomato puree and cook for another two to three minutes. Add stock and pearl barley to the pan and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes. After the barley has been allowed to cook slowly for 20 minutes, add potato. Cook slowly until the lamb is tender and the potatoes have begun to thicken the stew. Serve hot with thick slices of bread.

About the author

Joe Flick hails from Redmond. Prior to earning a degree in anthropology at the University of Montana, he studied German and literature at the University of Salzburg, Austria and there became enamored with the deep-rooted cultural and social traditions that go hand in hand with the art of brewing and cuisine. Joe has worked in the Pacific Northwest craft beer scene for many years, most recently at one of greater Seattle’s most critically acclaimed bottles shops, Malt & Vine. He dedicates his free time to writing, travel and working with local artists.


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