Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Brown Ale pt. 3 - Three 'modern' brown ales

I like and admire Pressure Drop immensely. After being disappointed by a pricey half-pint of Stone’s Ruination IPA a few months ago (it tasted like it had had a long, hard journey to get into my glass, and the hop hit I was prepared for just never quite happened), a superb pint of Pressure Drop’s Bosko confirmed that there really isn’t much point importing hoppy US beers when British breweries can provide beer which is just as good, and much fresher. I also love the fact that a hip London brewery would include something as esoteric as a foraged herb heffeweisse alongside US influenced pale ales in its core range. And I love the fact they brew a brown ale.

This is the first of the brown ales that pours truly brown. I joked about expecting the Newcastle Brown Ale to look like water from the River Tyne, but this really does look like Thames water - with a beautiful effervescence and off-white head to lure you in, of course. The nose gives a lot of roasted malts, akin to porter or stout territory. The mouthfeel is endlessly satisfying and chewy, and those roasted flavours make themselves known straight away. Neither the label nor the Pressure Drop website tell us what hops go into Stokey Brown, but I’m guessing they’re American. They lend a fruity quality and a dry background, with oranges and mangoes on the nose and clementines on the tongue.  I struggled for a while to put my finger on the flavour I was getting from this beer and I almost don’t want to write it because it’s so wanky, but… there’s a certain taste going on here that I can only compare to the caramelised parts of roasted sweet potatoes. Believe me, I know how that reads, but that’s what I taste.

Are there similarities between this and the more traditional examples I’ve already encountered? Well, if I really search for it I think I can detect a hint of that treacly malt flavour, but it’s a stretch. A pattern I am beginning to see throughout, though, is characteristics I’d expect from a porter or stout appearing in brown ales in a somewhat muted form, which makes sense – brown logically sits between pale and dark. The roasted malt flavour here supports this idea. Stokey Brown is far more generously hopped than the other beers, but it’s easier going than a punchy black IPA. It’s also very, very good and a beer I would love to drink again and again.

I particularly wanted to include Hastings because they’re relatively local to me and I really like what they do. They brew a Best Bitter and proudly brand it as such, which is something few new wave craft breweries do, but they also make more self-consciously ‘craft’ beers under the ‘Hastings Handmade’ brand, which is unusual for a small regional. Most importantly, all the beers I’ve tried have been exemplary, and for me they’re by far the most exciting of the numerous new-ish Sussex breweries.

Now, I acknowledged before I embarked on my mini-survey of brown ales that it was slightly unfair to compare traditional brown ales to their modern, super-hopped equivalents. By calling their version an India Brown Ale, Hastings make it clear that this one really is all about the hops, so including it is even less fair. But again, this demonstrates the way in which beer styles develop and are tweaked and spiced up by brewers all the time. Hastings add yet another tweak in bypassing the US and making their brown ale with two varieties of Slovenian hops.

The beer is an inviting dark brown not unlike the Samuel Smith’s version. I have to be honest and confess that my nose lets me down on this one; I get almost no aroma at all. This makes the huge grapefruit punch in the first mouthful all the more pleasant a surprise. This calms as I continue to drink, settling into a prickly dance on the tongue. Zesty citrus dominates and, in a blind taste test I could easily mistake this for a pale ale. It’s delicious, but frankly a completely different beast to the likes of Harvey’s Lewes Castle. Their varying shades of brown are all they have in common.

If British brown ales are rarely seen, brown ales with an “American accent” (as Brooklyn nicely put it in describing theirs) are slightly more visible, even if a British brewery has produced them. The US hops in Fourpure’s version hit you as soon as you pop the can, with a waft of tropical fruit accompanied by a pungent smell that reminds me of ammonia, only much more pleasant. The fruity hop flavour is balanced by a deep, rich, roasted malt flavour, but the bitterness lingers. This moreish bitterness and dry finish remind me of the Samuel Smith’s ale I tasted – the comparison I made to red wine tannins applies here, too, although the presence of robust hops makes the Fourpure a very different beer.

I could quite easily have polished this off in just a few glugs if I didn’t deliberately pace myself. The initial hop hit followed by warming malt is pleasing enough in itself, but as the dryness takes over, you find you’re taking another gulp without even knowing it, the bitterness nudging you to go back to the glass again and again. American brown ale might just be my new favourite beer style and the Samuel Smith’s comparison and the gentle presence of warm, stouty malt flavours draws a clear link between the traditional and the modern.

Incidentally, thank you to Sidony for not only encouraging me to write a beer blog, but actually getting excited at finding this beer and buying it for me.

To conclude… if the British brown ale is vanishing, perhaps we can attribute this to the hazy definitions of what constitutes a brown ale. It’s a bit of a non-style, somewhere between bitter and porter, and it’s easy to understand why it might not be at the top of brewers’ to-do lists. That transatlantic conversation between American craft brewers and their British counterparts is promising for brown ale, though, and as much as I love a good black IPA, I’d love to see more breweries trying their hand at American brown, which offers many of the same pleasures in a subtler form.

Your recommendations are more than welcome, and I’d be interested to hear the views of brown ale haters and believers alike.

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