Tag Archives: Session Friday

Brown Beers (Still) Get No Luvin’

Brown beer has an image problem.

Joe Tindall over at The Fatal Glass of Beer (host of this month’s “The Session: Beer Blogging Friday”) sums it up well: “The unglamorous brown middle ground is consistently neglected.”

I wrote about this very same topic a few years back, so rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m going to cite some of that article here. For that piece, I cobbled together a 6-pack of brown beers that are still worth your time, so check ’em out. This time around, I’m going to give you the view from Continental Europe.

Though decidedly brown in colour, Scottish ales don’t languish under the same stigma as their counterparts south of the border.

But first I have to admit that I haven’t had too many beers that announce themselves as “brown beer/ale” since I’ve been in Vienna. For the most part, they’re just not that widely available. Most new’ish European brewers stick to styles that have stood the test of crowd-rated time, so to speak. IPAs and pale ales abound among Euro craft brewers, as do stouts, porters, and the occasional sour or barrel-aged beer. Beers that have “brown beer/ale” on the label? Not so much. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of amber/copper/brown beers that you should check out in Europe or in the Euro aisle of your favourite bottle shop. There are. But these Bocks, Märzens, Dubbels, and Quads manage to avoid that never-land between Nacht und Nebel, night and dawn. (Ever heard of Aventinus getting dissed for being a brown beer? Me neither.)

So today I’m going to head out to my favourite bottle shop, BeerLovers, to see how brown beers are doing in Vienna’s vibrant craft beer community. While I’m doing that, here’s what I wrote a few years back:

Brown beers get no luvin’. And that’s a crying shame.

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. 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.

[…]

*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.

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Now for those beers I rustled up at BeerLovers. Notably, Austria’s Bierol (rhymes with Tirol, where they’re from) suggests a serving temperature of 10C for its entry into the rather barren field of Continental European brown beer, so we’ll start our 2017 six-pack of brown beer here.

Going Hazelnuts (Bierol, Austria, 5.7%). As the name suggests, this beer has been finished with hazelnuts –– organic, no less. Going Hazelnuts exhibits none of the extract character that plagues so many browns ales featuring nuts. Toasty caramel, mocha, chocolate almonds, dried cherry, a hint of char, and earthy hop-spice round out the distinctive coffee/chocolate and roasted barley aromas, while creamy carbonation adds richness on the palate. Nut liqueur (Frangelico), and bitter chocolate set the stage for a mild floral-spicy hop note mid-palate that shades into licorice root and dark cherry near the off-dry finish. A classic brown ale that hits all the chocolate, coffee, and nut notes –– helped along by a well-integrated charge of hazelnuts.

Jackie Brown (Mikkeller, Denmark/Product of Belgium, 6%). The colour of milk chocolate, Mikkeller charts compelling new territory with a beer that uses American hops without hitting you over the head with them. Jackie Brown is also the kind of beer that highlights how much brown beer can have in common with barley wine. It starts off with malt aplenty: Ovaltine, toast, caramel, and black tea hinting at mugi-cha.* Earthy with some licorice, the aromas are also reminiscent of cherries and cinnamon-spiked cocoa. Give the beer some time to open up and you’ll be rewarded with another cascade of aromas and flavours: fir tree, caramelized orange zest, dates, Oloroso-like nut notes, a sassafras/root beer spiciness, and even some Japanese-style brown sugar (kuro-sato). Jackie Brown is no wall flower, with a clean bitterness that lends the beer a certain levity in the face of all that rich caramel. Intensely flavoured yet elegant, with a long, herbal-bitter finish accented by fruit and nuts. One Tankard

*Mugi-cha is a refreshing cold barley tea brewed up in Japan to combat the summer heat and humidity. It has a distinctive quality reminiscent of roasted barley, bran, and brown malt.

Imperial Brown Ale (Nøgne Ø, Norway, 7.5%). Nøgne Ø notes that what makes their IBA unique is their blend of English malts and predominantly American hops. In this case, claims of uniqueness bear themselves out. From the moment the beer hits the glass, its opalescent dark amber-bronze colour with orange hues clearly states that brown beers can look mighty fine. The “woodsiest” beer of the bunch, Nøgne Ø’s IBA exudes aromas of forest floor mixed with dark forest berries such as black berry and wild raspberry. Fir needles and caramelized orange zest meet rich brown sugar and toasty biscuit/cookie malt notes, and a dusting of baking spice adds depth. The beer’s a riot of flavours, but a contained one. American-style hops are clearly present in the high end of the mix, balanced by a hint of molasses and brooding toast-toffee-anise bass notes. A digestif-like bitterness contributes additional layers of complexity to the beguiling residual sweetness, while dried apricots linger in the aftertaste. Pleasantly warming alcohol makes this the perfect beer to cap a day in the snow. Cellar-worthy. Two Tankards

Mochaccino Messiah, Coffee Brown Ale (To Øl, Denmark, 7%). It seems that Scandanvians like their brown ales, nomenclature be damned. To Øl’s entry into the field makes use of flaked oats, lactose, and coffee. Lots of coffee. Mochaccino Messiah is slightly darker than milk chocolate, with a foam cap reminiscent of the crema atop an espresso. The aromatics are distinctly coffee-driven: roasted coffee beans with that green/jalapeno “bite” common to many coffee beers, and with an interesting top note that flirts with cassis. Hints of fir emerge from behind the coffee screen along with a suggestion of baking spice and vanilla. Carbonation is lively, uniting with the bitterness to create an uplifting peppery effervescence. Bittersweet chocolate makes a cameo appearance, along with cocoa and a hint of cinnamon/cardamom. As the beer warms, it takes on a wine-like character that gestures toward toasty-oak Cabernet Franc with raspberry-jalapeno-pepper. But in the end, it’s all about the coffee, perhaps too much so.

Northumberland Brown Ale (Austmann Bryggeri, Norway, 5.5%). Rounding out the Nordic entries in this 6-pack is Austmann’s tribute to dark mild ale. Inky dark chocolate brown in colour, Northumberland looks like a porter. Expect plenty of freshly ground dark-roast coffee along with fruity chocolate notes that fold in raspberry, boysenberry and plum-cherry yeast aromatics. Firmly bittered and slightly acrid, the beer offers up licorice root and dark-roasted coffee, with plenty of bitter chocolate, a dash of chocolate liqueur, raspberry, and hazelnuts. The effervescent carbonation borders on prickly, making for a bracingly taut beer –– the liquid analogue of dark berry compote over toast with your morning coffee on the side.

2015 Wildshuter Männerschokolade (Stiegl, Austria, 5.5%). Bookending our 6-pack of Continental brown ales is a fine beer from one of Austria’s regional breweries. Ales aren’t the first thing that come to mind if you’re familiar with this brewery whose majestic beer garden overlooks the old town of Salzburg. But Stiegl recognized that there was something to this whole craft beer thing, and started a line of 750-mL releases under their Stieglgut Wildshut label. The brewers make astute use of alpine peacock barley, chocolate wheat malt, and black oats to create this chestnut brown ale that delivers luscious malt aromas and textured flavours in spades. Ovaltine, mugi-cha, cocoa, dark chocolate, brown sugar, black cherry, roasted nuts, and salted caramel make up a malt palette that recalls Baltic porter at times. Dates, raisins, and figs contribute to the dried-fruit complexity, while a hint of alpine meadows from the Central European hops carries over onto the palate. Cola-sassafras and a subtle mid-palate pepper-herbaceousness add a playful bright note to the crème caramel-like malt richness. Despite all the chocolate, mocha, and dark cherry malt character, Männerschokolade finishes dry with just the slightest suggestion of chocolate cake-like sweetness. A smooth, flavourful, and extremely drinkable beer that won’t knock you to the floor after a few glasses. Two Tankards

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If you’re in Europe, grab a six-pack of these under-rated beers to sip over the weekend! If you’re in North America, ask your favourite bottle shop to check availability with its distributors. Enjoy!

Related Tempest Articles

A World of Stouts for Your Weekend

Brown Beers Get No Luvin’: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.2)

Say No to Style Loyalty

The Lost Abbey’s 10 Commandments: A Warming Beer for Winter Evenings

Further Reading

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).

BJCP Style Guidelines, 2008 and 2015 editions.

Images

With the exception of the Session Friday logo and the logos and labels from brewery and bottle shop websites (Mikkeller, Nøgne Ø, Stiegl, BeerLovers), images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2017 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

For this, the eighty-third installment of The Session, Rebecca of The Bake and Brew puts forward the notion of tasting “against the grain.” She urges us to consider how much our taste or opinion of a craft beer is affected by a few of the following factors: hype, taste inflation, the opinions of friends, and the ubiquitous ratings pumped out by the craft beer community. I’ll address this fascinating topic in more than one installment over the coming weeks. Today’s first part grapples with our taste for extremes; a subsequent installment will deal with how we can challenge these canons in our everyday drinking lives.

Session Friday - Logo 1A Taste for the Extremes

To drink craft beer is to make a statement. The connotations of this statement are multivalent, ranging from support of local business and agriculture to rejection of bland beverages. It is also a declaration of taste that gives rise to distinctions. Drinking craft beer often means going against the grain of mass marketed beers.

But the craft beer tasting community is itself marked by distinctions and hegemonies. “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it,” wrote the great Weimar German literary critic, Walter Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. As a leftist thinker faced with the rise of fascism, Benjamin’s concerns were of much greater consequence than the question of craft beer tastes, but his words help put us in the frame of mind for critiquing the dominant craft beer tastes of the moment.

Heavily hopped beers have achieved a certain preeminence on the North American craft beer stage, to the point where it wouldn’t be a stretch to speak of a virtual conformism gripping the North American craft beer imagination. Craft breweries and brewpubs that do not have at least one iteration of the American-style IPA along with several other Pacific Northwest-inflected hoppy brews are almost as rare as sightings of the elusive sasquatch.Sasquatch - Wiki Sour beers, barrel-aged beers, and imperial XYZs also compete for our attention on the periphery of this conformity that, ironically, seeks out the extremes of novelty, rarity, and intensity. Just as Robert Parker defined the taste of a generation of wine drinkers in the United States and beyond, contemporary media convergences in North America have dialed in a rather predictable palate. If enough writers at X Magazine, raters at Y Website, or judges at Z Competition suggest that styles of particular intensity are the embodiment of the American beer renaissance, a canon of taste is born.

In a recent article analyzing how rating sites such as Beer Advocate and Rate Beer have molded the North American craft beer palate over the past several years, Bryan Roth of This Is Why I’m Drunk uncovers a surprising trend. Isolating styles and brands that occupy the top twenty spots on these sites’ respective yearly “best of” lists, Roth observes that ABVs (alcohol-by-volume) have fallen off rather steeply from a consistent average of 11.45-11.53% ABV between 2007 and 2010, to a relatively meager 9.76% in 2013. (Yes, you read that correctly. Now you can pause for a moment to catch your breath. The top twenty beers on these lists averaged around 11.5% ABV for four years running.) Roth’s account of this three-year downward trend is convincing enough. The explosion in the number of breweries has translated into ever more variety as these newcomers seek to distinguish themselves among an increasingly crowded field of bottles, cans, and tap handles.

But I think there’s more to it, something we can’t merely reduce to variety driving down the average ABV of “top-ranked” beers. ABV may continue to drop, but this may have less to do with an embrace of sessionability than it does with the recent rise in popularity of sours and saisons (usually of lower ABV) in North America. We’d even be justified in drawing an analogy between the infatuation with high ABV and the recent turn to sours and funky beers. Arguably, these fruits of wild yeast and bacteria are, in North America at any rate, markers of a taste for the extreme. I may be wrong, but I suspect we won’t see a lager inhabiting any top-ten spots on these lists any time soon – unless it’s an imperial lager geared to appeal to a North American craft beer palate primed for big and intense flavours.

More often than not, though, these amped-up offerings are overrated reflections of a palate bias for particular styles and intensities. And if you’ll allow the generalization, it is a palate that sometimes confuses boldness and intensity with quality.

I’m aware of the risks of making such a sweeping pronouncement. As seventeenth-century master of the epigram, François de La Rochefoucauld, once noted, “Our pride suffers condemnation of our tastes with greater indignation than attacks on our opinions.” LaRouchefoucauld - Maximes (Wiki Fr)So let me modulate what I just wrote lest I lose half my readership. I’ve often been misunderstood by friends who think I don’t appreciate hops. I do. I just don’t think that beer should be a mere vehicle for hop character. It also doesn’t mean I think that bourbon barrel-aged beers and sour beers can’t be “good” – in fact, these styles are among my favourites.

That said, I wouldn’t be the first commentator to observe that the multitude of “best of” lists tends to give short shrift to subtlety in beer craftsmanship. Like lagers, for example. You’d be hard pressed to find a refreshingly austere northern German pilsener or a Märzen (Oktoberfest beer) with a deeply complex malt profile among the American-style IPAs, the imperial stouts, and, increasingly, the wild-fermented and/or barrel-aged beers that round out many a “best of” list.

But if the rumblings issuing forth from some quarters are any indication, 2014 might well signal grounds for hope. Beer writers like Bryan Roth represent a segment of the craft beer community concerned with how ratings drive consumption. Among this growing chorus of critical voices, John Frank has written a newly-minted article stressing a return to sanity and focus on quality, and Jeff Alworth of Beervana hails the return of lagers to the Pacific Northwest, a region where you couldn’t give them away a few years back. As an avowed malt head, I’ll drink to those potential changes.

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Postscript: You can read my follow-up article on beer and taste here:

Tasting Against the Craft Beer Grain

Other Related Tempest Articles:

The MaltHead Manifesto

Let Us Now Praise Famous Lagers: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.3)

Image Sources:

Sasquatch: Wikipedia

La Rochefoucauld: Wikipedia (France)

© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

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