BROWN ALE: A warm fermented ale that is generally ruddy amber to mahogany in color, comprising one of at least two distinct styles originating from England and a third begun in the States. This is to say, not a style at all, but a lump term for three altbeir-like brews, each as different as they are similar. The Oxford Companion to Beer notes that ‘brown ale’ is “not much more useful than ‘the term ‘red wine’. ” Usually these beers have caramel or biscuit malt flavors, lower attenuation than stouts or porters, and low hops presence. Not so much a specific beer “style” as an umbrella term that holds those U.K. brews that are a step darker in color, stemming from the brown malts, higher in gravity and sweeter than milds, but not yet the complex beverage a crystal malt based porter or stout is. Roasted and chocolate notes are some of the few common flavor elements that will be found in most beers calling themselves brown ale.
The English styles gave us the name and came first. Mann’s, the original modern brown ale, was first brewed in 1902 as ‘the sweetest beer in London’. Mann’s Brown Ale is not only the original, but one of the last remaining examples of Southern English Brown Ales. The southern style, compromising low ABV, sweet ales, have gone the way of portable CD players in popularity. In contrast, the Northern English Brown, a higher gravity, better hopped ale, continues to sell well. Newcastle, Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown, and Double Maxim compromise the best known examples of the style.
American’s were brewing a version of brown ale as “English Nut Brown Ale” before prohibition but the modern version was a product of homebrewing, specifically Pete Slosberg of Pete’s Wicked. As a pioneer in the American microbewing revival, Pete’s Wicked flagship brew was Pete’s Wicked Ale; a brown. This beer (first released in 1986) with its barley malt body and stronger American hop presence version of the Northern England Brown, cast the mold for all other American browns to follow.
American brown ale, having less tradition to follow, tends to be the most dynamic. Many are dry hopped, and used as a platform for flavors such as coffee. Others, such as Cigar City’s Bolita Double Nut and Clown Shoes Brown Angel produce higher ABV versions, sold as Double Brown. Just to confuse things, a few more American brewers make a middle ground brown calling it India brown ale. All of these are going to be hoppier than a traditional English Brown.
On a personal note, brown ale has had a special place in my craft beer heart. In the 90’s, Newcastle Brown Ale worked for me as training wheels for friends who were instinctively fearful of beer that was darker in color than their go-to, Michelob Golden Draft Light. It was sweet, and when light hadn’t ruined the beer after from sitting on store shelves in clear glass with no born on date, the taste was so unexpected that the squeamish sippers often turned into the converted. After that, stouts and porters were not so intimidating. It was a great ambassador for so many future hop-heads, give this style a go if you are looking to get started enjoying better beer.