England’s individual beer styles are a result of the golden age of English brewing, the 18th and 19th centuries. Brown ales sit right in the middle. They are unassuming, working-class brews. Imminently drinkable, rich with classic English character, and midway between pale ales and porters, brown ales are ready and able to slake any thirst.
Pale ales were brewed extensively in central England, but brown ales held fort in aother areas of England as a distinctive alternative.
Until about 300 years ago, most English beer was dark, murky, and often dubiously fermented with wild yeast. It had some smoky character, as malt was dried over wood or coal fires. Often, the malt was referred to as “brown malt.” At a time when a single malt was used to make beer, it is easy to see why the beers had the character that they did.
Multiple batch brewing was common in the Middle Ages. Successive worts were drawn from the mash via saturation and draining of the grist. Each batch produced a lower-strength wort and was designated stout, strong brown, common brown, and intire, in decreasing order of strength. Common brown is an approximation of today’s brown ale, but was significantly stronger.
Eventually, malting skills progressed to the point where some specific types of malt were produced. These ran the gamut from pale through amber, brown, and even dark brown. These malts were mixed in different ratios, or used alone, to produce a rainbow of ales, including porter, brown ale, stout, mild, and pale ales, with porter often being the dominant brew. Sometimes, finished beers—some aged, some new—were blended.
By the early 19th century, newly developed pale malts spawned something of a revolution in brewing. Pale ales were brewed extensively in central England, but brown ales held fort in other areas of England as a distinctive alternative, especially in London and later in the northeast. Brown ales were further distilled as a style with the London brewers favoring a darker, sweeter, low-strength beer, while those in the northeast made theirs stronger, crisper, and lighter in color. These two delineations still exist.
The advent of homebrewing and microbrewing in America had yet another profound effect on brown ale formulations. As they were not necessarily beholden to traditional parameters, these experimental brewers played with the ingredients enough to warrant recognition of a neo-brown style. They preserved color and malt character but pushed the hop envelope significantly by using generous amounts for both bittering and aroma. They also brewed to a higher gravity. Brown ale is now a popular brew all across America.