Raise your hand if brown beer is one of your all-time favourites.
Brown beers get no luvin’. Maybe it’s our infatuation with IPAs and IBUs. Maybe it’s brown beer’s vaguely middle-of-the-road status: Brown ale has precious little in common with a lager, Pils, cream ale or Kölsch, and doesn’t quite match the intensity of most porters and stouts. Brown ale ranges in colour from dark amber to chestnut to copper-brown, sometimes even dark brown. But other beers that aren’t subject to the brown beer stigma share these characteristics as well, like some pale ales and old ales.
Some English bitters flirt with the outer edges of brown––no less brown than a Sam Smith Nut Brown, which is actually of the dark amber persuasion. Many barleywines exhibit varying hues of brown as well, and guess what? They don’t suffer from any image problems whatsoever. And then there’s all those lighter-coloured and less intensely-hued porters. Doing just fine too. Brown beer loses out because it’s called Brown Beer. I mean, can you really call a beer “Back in Brown,” or “Fade to Brown,” or “All Cats at Night Are Brown”? No. “My Brown Cardigan” might be as good as it gets. If that fails, name the beer after your (brown) dog.
But is this a mere hue and cry over colour? It’s more than that, I think. The colour spectrum of brown beer shades over into a hybridity of aroma and flavour as well: not quite pale ale, not quite porter. We’re at a loss when confronted with a brown beer. Are brown beers malty or hoppy? Full-flavoured or a well-choreographed ballet of moderate levels of malt and hops? Sessionable? Dry or slightly sweet? All of the above? Brown beers may well be the quintessential “undecidable” beer style. Which is, perhaps, why we decide against it when the choices at our local bottle shop or taproom are so vast.
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It’s still quite busy here in Tempest Land. While my more involved writing projects sit on the backburner to make room for my brew kettle––I’ve been catching up on homebrewing projects all week––here’s another Saturday Six-Pack for your enjoyment. If Saturday’s too far off and/or you live in the U.S., drink these eminently autumnal beers with your Thanksgiving dinner.
Last time, I pulled together a selection of beer styles that I drink less often than other styles. This time the rationale’s similar, the only difference being that I actually drink my fair share of brown beer. I’m going to assume, however, that brown beers aren’t what many a beer drinker would bring to a gathering of like-minded beverage enthusiasts. For the purposes of this six-pack, I have bracketed out other styles that are brown in colour and sometimes in name, such as Oud Bruin, Bock and Doppelbock, and Munich Dunkel.
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Since not all of us are brown beer aficionados, what can we expect from these beers?
If you’re a porter fan, you’ll be interested to learn that the contemporary English mild ale (sometimes called “dark mild”) is likely one of the beers that made it into early porter mixes. Indeed, some contemporary versions are reminiscent of lower-gravity brown porter. Today, “mild” refers to a relative lack of hop bitterness; historically, however, the term was reserved for younger beers that had not yet developed the sourness of aged batches.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, breweries began bottling a slightly sweeter rendition of this ale as an answer to the growing reaction against vinous vatted porter and milds that went south all too quickly. English brown ales of this sort are generally split into sub-styles along geographic lines. Southern English (or “London-style”) brown ales are darker, sweeter, and lower in alcohol than their northern counterparts. Brown ale originated in London, where the calcium carbonate- and sodium chloride-rich water favoured the production of darker styles such as porter, stout, and dark mild. Perhaps due to the cultural influence of the capital city, this southern type of brown ale came to be brewed throughout England. As is the case with mild ales, London-style browns are beers that you hardly ever see in North America, unless you happen to be judging at a homebrew competition. The style is also becoming increasingly rare even in Olde Albion.
But brown ale lives on as a style associated with the northeast of England, even if what we now call Northern English brown ale or, simply, nut brown ale, debuted on the opposite end of England in Cornwall. This is a nutty and biscuit-like beer ranging in colour from dark amber to reddish-brown, and one that is drier and has less caramel character than its London-style relative to the south. The hop notes are more pronounced than in a Southern English brown, but not so much as to overwhelm the nut-and-biscuit malt profile. Roast notes make an occasional and subtle appearance in these styles as well.
As I’m sure no one will find in the least bit surprising, North American interpretations of the style are, generally, hoppier and maltier. As per the BJCP Style Guidelines, American brown ale “can be considered a bigger, maltier, hoppier interpretation of Northern English Brown Ale or a hoppier, less malty brown porter, often including [a] citrus-accented hop presence.” My favourite American brown ales have a distinctive barley tea-like character––mugi-cha, for anyone who has had the pleasure of drinking this cold barley tea on a sultry summer day in Japan––and a roasted accent that falls between bitter-sweet chocolate and coffee.
*The Newcastle Brown Ale website suggests a serving temperature of 38-40F (3-4C), but in my experience these beers do much better at cellar temperature. If you drink them cool or cold, you won’t get any of the subtle malt characteristics that only come into their own around 50F (10C) or higher. This is particularly the case with English examples you might come across.
Ellie’s Brown Ale (Avery Brewing Company, Colorado). Pleasant roast malts predominate but don’t overpower the dark chocolate in this pecan-brown beer with russet highlights. The aromas are earthy, with just the slightest hint of licorice. On the palate, a residual maple sweetness counters a chocolate-accented roast character intertwined with malted milk and toffee. Hops play a supporting role, contributing an almost eucalyptus-like herbal-medicinal touch and a smoothly bitter undertone.
Boffo Brown Ale (Dark Horse Brewing Company, Michigan). Deeply hued dark chestnut brown with mahogany highlights, the aroma of this beer doubles the appearance to suggest that we’re nearing porter territory. The complex malt character shines, with dark chocolate and cocoa-dusted dark cherry mingling with baking spice. Fig jam makes an appearance, with a sprinkle of ground ginger mixed in. All of this quickly crests into a Campari-like bitterness, leading to a lingering finish reminiscent of a high-end cup of cocoa.
Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale (Samuel Smith Old Brewery, England). The crystal-clear and beautifully hued dark amber liquid in your glass announces fine things to come. Sam Smith’s tell-tale earthy-licorice-anise aroma pervades a finely-orchestrated combination of toffee and apples with a touch of vanilla that is almost cream soda-like. The malt accents fall on biscuit and toasted nuts, with layered dark cherry and hazelnut teaming up with ghee and butterscotch to round out the ensemble. The nutty finish features an appetizing and almost tannic dryness.
Tumbler Autumn Brown Ale (Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, California). Roast notes of bitter-sweet chocolate intermingle with floral-pine hops to make this beer the most identifiably “American” of the lot. Like the Boffo Brown, its complexion and aromas brush up against the boundaries of porterdom. Tumbler Autumn Brown is a compelling mix of bright levity and earthy seriousness: a smooth and balanced interlacing of toffee and stewed dark fruit, a whiff of autumn smokiness, and bright flavor hops keep things on the graceful side. The long and beguiling finish is reminiscent of the kirsch-soaked cherries in Black Forest cherry cake. N.B.: As of 2014, this beer is no longer available as a stand-alone offering, but you can still get it as part of Sierra Nevada’s Fall Variety Pack.
Old Brown Dog Ale (Smuttynose Brewing Company, New Hampshire). What’s with all the dogs gracing the labels of American brown ales? Cuddly-looking old brown dog or no, this is one flavourful brown ale––the brown ale, in fact, that convinced me some years ago that brown ales were a style worth a second look. If Smuttynose’s Old Brown Dog looks almost identical to Sam Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, it is to fruitiness what Sam Smith is to nuttiness. In many ways, this beer reminds me of some Munich Dunkels and Märzens that I’ve had: toasty fresh bread and plum-dark cherry. Layered together with this Munich-like malt character comes a dash of cocoa and bright maple sugar en route to a fruity-bitter off-dry finish.
Upslope Brown Ale (Upslope Brewing Company, Colorado). Upslope’s offering is the most “woodsy” of the beers in this six-pack, and its roasted signature is also one of the most prominent of the beers featured here. Wisps of smoke intertwine with earthy forest floor, cocoa powder, maple sap, and lightly charred coffee before yielding mid-palate to plum-fruit. The dry and moderately astringent bitter finish opens onto an aftertaste of spiced, roasted nuts.
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Even if it’s only Monday, grab a six-pack of these under-rated and inexpensive beers to accompany your Thanksgiving meal, to sip over the coming weekend, or to sample with a group of friends.
What are some of your favourite brown beers? Let us know in the comments.
Related Tempest Articles
Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer, Brewing Classic Styles (Boulder: Brewers Publications, 2007).
Michael Jackson, The New World Guide to Beer (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1988).
Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont, The World Atlas of Beer (New York: Sterling Epicure, 2012).
BJCP Style Guidelines, 2008 edition.
Newcastle Brown Ale Six-Pack: Lokko Robson (Wiki Commons)
Cover of Derrida’s Writing and Difference: University of Chicago Press
Witbier yeast starter gone wild: F.D. Hofer
Ellie’s Brown Ale: Avery
The Angel & White Horse Pub next to Sam Smith’s Tadcaster brewery: Samuel Smith’s Brewery
Can of Upslope: Upslope Brewing
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