Browns Old and New
The traditional brown ales of England, be they from the northeast or the south, share time-honored brewing procedures and many ingredients. Malts grown in England are known as “maritime” malts, as opposed to “continental” malts, and are called pale ale malt. It generally comprises about 80 to 90 percent of the grist of any ale. Pale ale malt differs from continental malt in several important ways. It is inherently lower in protein and therefore requires less manipulation during the brewing process and less aging after fermentation. Young, fresh ales can be produced in just a few weeks.
Kilning pale ale malt at a slightly higher temperature than continental malt imparts another important difference—a slightly darker, burnished-gold color that contributes a more flavorful, toasty wort.
Modern browns can attribute, in large part, their russet or brown color, distinctive malty aromatics, and flavor to two specialty malts. Comprising a minority of the grist, caramel and chocolate malt cast a prominent influence on brown ales. Stewed and then crystallized, caramel malt contributes a sweet, caramel, and sometimes nutty or toffeeish character. Chocolate malt (lightly roasted pale malt) is somewhat reminiscent of chocolate, but is called such because of its color. The combination of these two malts, in conjunction with the pale malt, makes for a wonderful, deep and complex symphony of flavors and aromas.
It would be a shame to overwhelm such lusciousness with an overdose of hops. To that end, English brown ales are spiked with a balancing measure of the bittering blossoms. Most beers in England employ two varieties of hops, Fuggles and East Kent Goldings. While both are versatile, Goldings are widely considered to be the cream of the crop. They are complex and earthy without being overbearing. Their distinctly herbal character has much to do with giving a brew that decidedly “British” ambiance. Fuggles, also first cultivated in Kent and widely used, contribute a rounder, but just as earthy note. Flavor and aroma hop additions are usually modest.
Ale brewers in England tend to favor yeasts that contribute a wee bit of a footprint to the finished beer. One great thing about yeast is that over time, it adapts to house conditions and the practices of the brew master. In this sense, many strains are proprietary, meaning that they are considered the “house yeast” that is used nowhere else. This effect is often what produces the minute, discernable differences from one brewery to another. Working at relatively high temperatures, yeasts produce various esters and other distinct qualities generally associated with, and desired in, ales. Faint butterscotch notes, soft fruity esters, and even winey wisps drift from glass to nose. What brown ales lack in force, they make up for with subtle expression.
American versions of brown ale are, at first glance, indistinguishable from their British counterparts. Some are, in fact, designed to mimic the English browns in every way. The ruby-brown colors are there, as the grist is about the same, being comprised of pale, caramel, and chocolate malts for the most part. But often, that is where the similarity ends. An initial whiff reveals that something is absent, but something else is aggressively present. Missing are the subtle contributions of the yeast, as American browns are often made with a neutral yeast with little or no character of its own. Present, however, is a forceful dose of aroma hops with the very familiar Cascade variety the most common. A taste will reveal yet another divergence from the English browns. American browns are bigger in all ways—higher in gravity, bitterness, and alcohol.