Brown Ales: A History More Complex Than Its Nondescript Name

As the leaves turn from the color of a sunset to a dreary murky brown, we try not to think about what we’ve lost, but instead, what beer we can drink next. In honor of the fading, and ultimately falling, leaves that have given their lives to provide us with shelter, we will celebrate by focusing on Brown Ales this month.

Brown has such a bad rep. I mean, whose favorite color was brown…ever? Brown is associated with many unfortunate things, from dirt to well…so who in their right mind would really reach for a six pack of Brown Ale when you could walk away with an IPA or a festive seasonal? The India Pale Ale invokes a sense of adventure and bright, refreshing flavors. The Brown Ale? Oh, who even knows. And that breweries call their Browns “Moose Drool” doesn’t make this situation any better. Well. We are making it our mission this month to change the perception of what a Brown Ale is by drinking as many as possible and showcasing their goodness. Well, we’ll see about the latter at least.

Bring on the Moose Drool!

Moose drool…fresh from Missoula, MT.

Like with our early discussion of the Porter, the term “Brown Ale” has been associated with a number of different beer recipes throughout its history. It encompasses a number of regional British beers, a Belgian ale, and the American Brown Ale. Talk about an international sensation.

Marketing Matters

You might have noticed by now that most beer styles have an origination in Germany, Belgium, or the UK. This month, our story begins in England.

The “Brown Ale” has been around since the 17th century, although you would not recognize it among its contemporary counterparts. The original Brown Ale was simply a British Mild Ale that was brewed with 100% brown malts, rendering the ale a dark brown. This darker ale disappeared in the 18th century, as British brewers quickly made the switch to a new, cheaper malt (pale malt). Can’t blame them. RIP Brown Mild Ale.

A Regional Divide

This might have been the end of the Brown Ale for all eternity if  Mann Brewery didn’t market one of their products as a “Brown Ale” in the 19th century. With help from a marketing campaign advertising it as “the sweetest beer in London,” this beer wooed the London populace with its rich roasted malt and chocolate flavors. By the 1920s, Mann’s Brown Ale was one of the most popular beers in the area. Other British brewers quickly hopped on the Brown Ale bandwagon hoping to make a pretty pence. Perhaps you’ve heard of Newcastle? While Mann Brewery might have revived the Brown Ale (at least in name), Newcastle put the style on the beer map. Newcastle was established by Lt. Colonial James Porter in 1927. Working with a chemist, Lt. Porter developed this Brown Ale during an attempt to emulate Bass ale. Although he considered the initial recipe a failure, as you might note that Newcastle tastes nothing like Bass, it was an instant hit for its sweet malt flavors and high alcohol content. In fact, the story goes that this alcoholic ale was so popular, that the local police asked Porter to reduce the ABV because citizens were wastedly running amok and filling up the prisons for their misdeamonrs. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had felt that way after drinking Newcastle. I guess I’m doing it wrong.

What? I know it’s the wrong country, I’m just illustrating a point.

So this little story about Mann’s Brown Ale and Newcastle turned out to play quite a significant role in the history of the Brown Ale. There are now two types of Brown Ale in Britain: Northern Brown Ale (ala Newcastle) and Southern Brown Ale (ala Mann). The Northern Brown Ale is light in color, light in hops, and light in carbonation. The predominant character of these is a sweet caramel malt. Some Northern Brown Ales are also called ‘nut brown ales’ for their resemblance to, well, the color of nuts. The Southern Brown Ale is a darker, more robust brew. It is characterized by a strong, fruit and malt profile with very little hops. If this was war, you could claim the North champion: Mann Brewery was purchased by Usher Brewery in 1964, which was recently purchased by Wychwood Brewery, who does not produce a Brown Ale. After near extinction, there is, allegedly, a Southern Brown Ale revival emerging in England…while Northern Brown Ales are exported across the globe. Newcastle FTW.

…And Back in America

So that’s the English story. Like many beer histories beginning in 17th century Britain, there was also an American story. Colonies developed their own Brown Ale, adapted from British recipes with ingredients found in the US. Molasses was a key ingredient in early American Brown Ale days.  Later, as Brown Ale production picked up in England at the turn of the century, its production followed suit in the US. Copycats.

“Nut Brown Ales” were advertised in the early 1900s as a winter seasonal brew and a traditional ‘Olde English’ beer. While little is known about the actual style of the beer, its association with England and its fancy beer drinkers was aggressively linked to this “Brown Ale.” This type of marketing persisted into the 1940s.

Pittsburgh Brewing’s Nut Brown Ale
(source: zythophile.wordpress.com)

The “Nut Brown Ale” fell out of fashion after WWII, only to be revived during the early craft beer movement of the 1980s. In true American fashion, these early home brewers developed a unique version of the British Brown Ale. The first American Brown Ale (ABA) was brewed in Texas. As with everything in Texas, this ABA was bigger, stronger, and meaner. It had a high hop content, high malt content, and a matching high ABV. As brewers in California and across the country began brewing their own versions of ABAs, they lost a little bit of their bite and evolved into a more balanced beast.

RIP, Wicked Pete

The most prevalent and successful American Brown Ale was Pete’s Wicked Ale, one of the first mass marketed craft beers. Pete’s Wicked Ale took the Northern Brown Ale recipe and added a helluva lot of hops. American, and all. However, as of this year, Wicked Ale is no longer in production due to the decline of the Brown Ale’s popularity in the US (according to Pete’s owner). I mean, it makes sense. Today, microbrew enthusiasts are searching for the incredibly hoppy, obscure, or bizarre. And while once Americans found the Brown Ale chichi, you know, coming from the classy British Isles and all, now they just find it boring. But! There are still some in production, and we will be the judge of their ability to appease and entertain our self-proclaimed classy palates.

Oh! We had mentioned that Belgium also produces a Brown Ale. It does. There are two types of Brown Ales made in Belgium: the Oud Bruin and the Bruin (or Brune). The Oud Bruin (or Flanders Brown) is a twice fermented Flemish ale that is aged for about a year (hence the name “oud”). These yeasty, funky beers are aged in oak, which give them a brown color (hence “bruin”). The Bruin is a darker, less funky Oud Bruin. Honestly, I wouldn’t have mentioned anything about these Belgian dudes if I hadn’t already purchased a Bruin to review this month. They’ll get their own profile another month.

What to expect

Since we’re really discussing three types of beer here, there will be much variation in each of these categories.

Sight: The color will range from a deep copper to a dark brown. While most Brown Ales are clear, the traditional recipes are unfiltered and will be a little cloudy.

Smell: Whether you are enjoying a Brown Ale in the Highlands or in Dallas, your Brown Ale will smell quite malty and you’re not going to get much hops on the nose. Some other aromas to expect include caramel, nuts, chocolate, and grains.

Flavor: You won’t be getting any bombastic, dynamic flavors from your resident Brown Ale. However, expect a malty and generally balanced beer. Some Brown Ales will have a more roasted, toffee taste (Northern Browns), while others will be sweeter and have a fruit and molasses flavor (Southern Browns). The hops will be largely undetectable, but some American Browns will serve you your daily dose of hops (thanks, America).

Feel: The body will be pretty thin with low carbonation from the British and slightly more from the Americans.

We will be the judge of just how light your dark side is, Newcastle.

Nice, straightforward history, huh? Well as most histories go, things were not this simple at the time. After reading a piece arguing that there is in fact no such thing as an “English Brown Ale” because the term does not convey any type of cohesive style, we feel especially compelled to make our own assessment before agreeing with his well-researched argument. While drinking a Newcastle Brown Ale and a Southern Brown Ale one after the other would likely prove his point, we will go a step further and drink thirty Brown Ales to prove our point: drinking beer is good. And if we can substantiate or disprove his argument along the way, all the better.

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Categories: Brown Ale | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Brown Ales: A History More Complex Than Its Nondescript Name

  1. Pingback: Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale « The Year in Beer

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