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.
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:
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.
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
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
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.
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.