Though the brewing industry continually reinvents itself with regard to beer style, few breweries would have survived, or even been established, without a portfolio of familiar, time-tested beers. Often given less attention than the flashier of their nouveau brethren, these styles endure because of their soft edges and drinkability. With their unassuming roundness and rich, supple character, brown ales are an example of this sensibility. Rooted in the earliest of English brewing history, intertwined with historical porter, refined during the golden age of brewing, and rediscovered during the recent brewing renaissance, brown ale is ubiquitous in one interpretation or another. Those true to their modern roots are outstanding crossover beers, showcasing a malt complexity and smooth contour that is agreeable to almost everyone. Not coincidentally, that was the original intent of brown ale, a modest brew that served to satisfy the masses.
Brown ales are outstanding crossover beers, showcasing a malt complexity and smooth contour that is agreeable to almost everyone. Not coincidentally, that was the original intent: a modest brew that served to satisfy the masses.
Brown ale as we know it today is a relatively modern creation, though brown beer has existed for several hundred years. Up through much of the 17th century, malted barley was dried primarily with direct heat, resulting in a harsh and smoky product. Some brews might have been lightened marginally with unmalted barley or other raw grains, as it was often noted in brewing literature of the day that the coarse character imparted by direct-heat drying was undesirable.
As brewing moved into large scale breweries early in the 18th century, coke became the preferred fuel, providing a cleaner burn and softer, less acerbic malt. Also, the degree to which it was kilned was easier to control and hence, malt could be segregated more easily by relative color from batch to batch.
Pale, amber, and brown malts, used alone or in any combination, were employed to produce the brews available in pubs. Successive worts made from a single mash would have produced several beers of different strengths. This combination of malt blends and wort gravity meant that there was a lot of variation. Add age to equation, and it gets even more diverse.
Most beers were in the amber to brown range, according to brewing documents. A nomenclature evolved to differentiate the brews, with stout, stock, stale, mild, pale, and brown among these terms. There may have been a fair number of designations, but to this point, styles were really not well-defined.
Segregation of beer into styles found a watershed in 1817, when Daniel Wheeler invented the drum kiln. It was the able to dry and toast malt without contact with the fuel, allowing the unencumbered flavor of the malt to come through. He produced roasted barley, dubbed black patent, that was added separately to a grist where desired. Modern stout and porter, containing these black malts, were born. Beers made with the patented malt were henceforth known as black beers and those without, brown. Brown ale would acquire its signature from this very movement with the development of lightly roasted and caramelized malts.
Though favored as a proletarian brew in much of England through a good portion of the 19th century, an overall lull in the demand for brown brews coincided with a movement towards pale beers, both ale and lager, into the 20th century. Brown ale was considered somewhat stodgy, but nevertheless held on just enough to keep in pubs throughout London and some other pockets of England as a session beer. Before long, one of today’s famous brewers would reintroduce the world to the pleasures of brown ale, and essentially define once and for all the modern style.
Prior to 1927, bottled versions of dark mild ale were marketed as brown ale. To capitalize on the demand for bottled beers, the brewmaster of Scottish and Newcastle, Jim Porter, was given the task of formulating a beer to fill that niche. His Newcastle Brown Ale, introduced in 1927, was designed to cater to the local working class, and was so superbly-crafted that it won a gold medal at the Brewers’ Exposition in London in 1928. The style moniker remains, the legacy of “Nookie Brown” secure since. Contemporary browns may be more aggressive in their character, but are no more drinkable than the tawny original. Nutty, with a delicate caramel background and dryish finish, no beer seems easier on the palate.
The Spirit of Brown
Today, brown ales in England are very much like the Newcastle blueprint, though some in the south are a bit sweeter and darker. In the United States, where the craft brewing inclination is to “Americanize” the classic styles, a lot of brown ales are made heftier, hopped more aggressively ( with American hops of course ), or both. On the other hand, given the proclivity for tradition, many brewers in the US have maintained the modesty that is manifested in classic English brown ale.
As with any beer, superior base malt is imperative, but it is the deft employment of specialty malt that makes a great brown ale. Historically, pale ale malt would have been augmented with a measure of brown malt, and later, some caramel malt. Brown malt is a spirited grist component, as it has a very earthy element, slender roastiness, as well as a full reddish hue. Some might consider it a bit coarse if used too extensively, but just as many find it appealing: 10 to 20% of it in a grain bill is very noticeable. The resurgence of historical brews has spurred maltsters in England to produce more brown malt, as even American brewers ( and homebrewers ) are keen to add that bit of authenticity. It is still a commonly used malt in England.
More often than not, though, caramel and chocolate malt are used to achieve the deep amber to mahogany color. Each of these malts contribute the essential flavors. The synergy is a soft toffee character unique to a well-made brown. Few beer styles showcase the art of blending just a few well-selected malts without going over the top. Sometimes, the liberal use of dark malt blurs the line between brown ale and porter, especially those brewed with brown malt. These versions may in fact be very close to historical porters, brewed before the advent of black malt. Brown ales are, in fact, somewhat diversely interpretive, showing a continuum of plentiful caramel, rich chocolate, and soft roast.
True-to-style English brown ales are well-balanced with respect to hops. Whether it is brewed in Britain or the U.S., East Kent Golding or Fuggles would suit a classic version. Hops should be noticeable, but not overshadow the engaging, subtle sweetness of the malt. Americanized interpretations have as their own signature a somewhat forceful hop character, both in bittering and aromatic additions. These would be hopped on par with an American amber or pale ale, with noticeable floral, citrus, and pine notes. This is a tricky proposition, as dark malts don’t always handle those catty hops well.
English yeast will provide the most character, and give that earthy, mineral character that brown ale so richly displays: this is, after all, a beer of everyman, with a lot of substance packed into an understated package, to be enjoyed over several hours. Most are around 5% ABV, but American versions often push towards 6%. And though many don’t fit snugly into the classic mold, there are many well-balanced, superbly nuanced ones to be found. Of course, one is increasingly likely to encounter imperial and double brown ale these days, but those deserve a separate digest.
Just as a skilled chef can make a remarkable dish with few ingredients, so can a brewer craft a simple, contemplative beer in the same manner. Brown ale is such, and those that appreciate them are looking for nothing more than straightforward, unadorned enjoyment. Sometimes, that is the toughest challenge. Often, rather ironically, it is the easiest to find.