One of the more recognizeable imports--available in the US for decades--is Theakston's Old Peculier. Anyone who's taken the plunge knows that the beer is itself peculiar, but probably they don't know the half of it. Theakston's is a beer with a lot of stories.
Let's start out with the peculiar spelling of Peculier. If you look very closely at the funny little seal on the bottle (reproduced for you at right), you'll see these words (in 2-point type): "the Seal of the Official of the Peculier of Masham." Curious. It turns out that a "peculier" is an ecclesiastical court established to arbitrate church law in the absence of a bishop on issues like wearing a hat during communion or carrying a dead man's skull out of the churchyard. You know, common offenses. In this case, the peculierate was established in Masham (a town in Yorkshire) by the archbishop of York. The offices were terminated by a series of laws 150 years ago, but it's just like a brewery to keep this odd bit of historical trivia alive (if obscurely so).
But wait!--we're only getting started. Now to the other word in the beer's name, "old," which designates its style of ale. Old ales are ... well, actually, there are two kinds of old ales. There are those like Thomas Hardy's Ale, which is a very strong beer designed to be aged in the bottle. And then there are those like Theakston's which harken back to beers brewed in the olden days. Of this latter variety, there can be great variation, but they should be sweet with unfermented barley, hearty, and dark. Strengths vary.
(There's another story Theakston highlights about its connection to the Crusades, but it is far enough afield that you'll have to go read it on your own.)
Theakston's has been around since 1827, and Old Peculier has been brewed since at least 1890--and probably long before that. So it is in fact, not just style, a fairly old ale. You have a sense of traveling back in time when you pour out a bottle. It is thick and viscous, and froths into a nice head in the manner you imagine medieval ales might have. I held it up to the sunlight, which refracted dimly and murkily only through the narrowest part of the glass. It's mostly an opaque brown, but under summer sunlight, it has a cloudy, dark amber-brown color, similar to iced tea. The aroma is bready and hearty, much as the beer looks. Fruity notes waft up with raisin and plum. There is one additional quality that I could only identify after I tasted it--we'll come to that in a moment.
I bet many people don't notice the odd spelling of the beer, or forget it once they take their first sip. It's a strange beer. First of all, it's rather thick in a way most commercial beers aren't. It is sweetish and estery, and again, I picked up a plum note. I suspected--and later confirmed--that sugar was employed, for it had that characteristic estery quality that seems to come mainly from fermented sugar. However, here again the main identifying quality about Old Peculier is a bit of funkiness. It's not like the funkiness you'd find in a Belgian or even an Irish stout, and it took me a long time before I could figure out how to describe it.
Rye is by itself not a sour grain, but when bakers make rye bread, they generally use the sourdough method of adding a little old dough that's gotten a bit of lactic-acid funkiness to it. Thus are most ryes varying degrees of sour.
Eventually, I came to discover that this is what Old Peculier reminds me of--liquid rye bread. It's dark and hearty and slightly sweet, but it's predominant characteristic is that "peculiar" note--a little bit of sourness like old dough.
So, perhaps we need to revise our definition of old ales, or at least tip our hat to the depth of meaning in this curious style, of which Old Peculier remains the world standard.
Malts: Pale, crystal, brewers' caramel, and torrefied wheat.
Hops: Northern Brewer, Fuggles, other unidentified hops. Dry-hopped with Fuggles.
Alcohol by volume: 5.6%
Original Gravity: 1.057.
Bitterness Units: 29
Other: Three sugars are also used.
A world classic.