Thursday, 14 January 2016

Brown ale: some final observations

Since starting this blog, I've rattled on about brown ale a fair amount. I feel I've done the subject to death, but I've also spent so much time obsessing over it that I still have things to say. Despite the stylistic diversity of brown ale, there are noticeable trends within the style. As the final word on brown ale for this blog, I propose a series of sub-categories. Bear in mind I'm not taking myself totally seriously in this – brown ale is obscure enough as it is without being chopped up into micro-styles. It’s just a way of presenting the continuities across the various examples of the style I've tasted in the past year or so.

I still try any new brown ale I see. If a local pub tweets that they’re serving one, or a brewery announces they’re making one, I’ll be making mental calculations as to how I can get to try it. It’s a uniquely fascinating style precisely because nobody seems to agree on exactly what it is. 
Your average beginners guide to beer styles tends to split brown ale into two categories – the sweet, low-gravity ales of the South of England, and the stronger, dry brown ales of the North. The truth is more complex; from the re-emergence of the style in the 1920s onwards, the beers were diverse and did not observe this imaginary north/south divide.

As brown ale stands today, archetypal examples of both the sweet/mild and strong-ish/dry versions remain. Mann’s Brown Ale, despite originating as one of the strongest examples of the style, now sits at 2.8% ABV and tastes largely of cola, treacle and toffee. Harvey’s Bloomsbury Brown, also at 2.8% has a strong caramel flavour, and may well be a relic of the days in which brown ale got its colour from caramel. I've never encountered any further examples of the low-gravity version of brown ale, and it’s easy to see why they fell out of favour – they’re interesting as a curiosity, but are bland and not very beery.

Newcastle Brown Ale remains the most commonly cited example of the stronger version. These beers are often dry and often described as ‘nutty’, although I've always thought this this is the power of suggestion at play – the phrase ‘nut brown ale’ is sometimes used to refer to the colour, but I've rarely detected a nutty taste. Newky Brown isn't a good beer, and it’s a shame it’s the only example of the style you’re likely to find in mainstream outlets. Far better is Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, which has a very dry quality that even veers towards red wine, and a deep, savoury malty body. (Edit; see here for some further interesting background on Newcastle Brown Ale from Martyn Cornell - "not, in any meaningful sense, a brown ale.")

Modern craft breweries have reinterpreted brown ale in several ways. The first sub-group pays homage to the traditional English brown ale, whilst not belonging to either the Mann’s or Newcastle camps. These beers are defined by a soft, comforting malt profile, which might include hints of caramel or toffee, milk chocolate, blackcurrants or blackberries or cola. A little roasted malt may creep in, but this will be more restrained than a porter or stout, and the beers are of a medium body. New-world hops might add a bitter, citrus finish but this will be subtle. Good examples I've tasted recently include Dirty Kitty by Denmark’s Beer Here and Maduro from Cigar City. Port Brewing’s Board Meeting deserves a mention for using these qualities as a foundation for a massive hit of coffee and rich chocolate – it’s terrific.

The ‘American brown ale’ style will take these characteristics and significantly amp up the hops, but not in a way that overpowers the malt backbone. Dark Star’s Rockhead is the best example of this I've tasted, and Fourpure's Beartooth is excellent, too.

Some beers call themselves ‘India brown ale’. What you’re getting here is obvious – a big hit of hops. This is generally my least favourite incarnation, though some are better than others, mainly because the brown ale base is wiped out and you end up with something closer to a black IPA. I would place BrewDog's recent “hopped-up brown ale” prototype in this category – I thought this was a poor beer all round, and tasted of little except overly bitter hops that left a citrus washing-up liquid taste that lasted for ages. Others whose tastes I trust found a lot more to it, so maybe I had an off bottle or my taste buds had an off day - either way, I stand by the assessment that the hop profile dominates everything else. Weird Beard’s No More Bright Ideas, whilst it tastes great, offers little to the brown ale enthusiast – it’s a very dry beer, bursting with vibrant and zesty hop character, but this renders the malt base irrelevant.

There is also a small breed of what appear to be brown ales, but aren't. When I wrote about Brighton Bier’s Free State, billed as “21st century brown” here, I remarked that the nevertheless delicious beer had very little ‘brown’ quality. Brewer Gary Sillence got in touch with me to clarify his intentions - “My main ambition was the break down the mainstream perception that brown beer means dull or old fashioned”, he said, and the beer was never intended to be received as a brown ale as such – his alternative tagline was “brown beer for a new generation”.  Magic Rock’s The Stooge, though billed as an American Brown Ale, seems to be doing much the same thing. It’s a far lighter shade of brown than most examples of the style. You might call its shade 'chestnut' – closer to a bitter (that's it in the photo at the very top of the first, if you'd like to see for yourself). And it drinks like a bitter, too, albeit one hopped with assertive US varieties alongside earthy British staples – the luscious malt character has an easy-drinking crispness to it that doesn't belong to brown ale. Are we at a point when the agonisingly unglamorous name ‘brown ale’ is more fashionable than ‘bitter’?

I don’t know it just seems this way because I've been actively looking for them, but I'm sure I'm seeing more brown ales than ever recently. With talk of a hop shortage, are breweries falling back on malt-driven styles such as this? In any event, I promise not to drone on about it any longer.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Going mild

Perhaps unconsciously inspired by Boak and Bailey’s recent bottled mild taste-off, I seem to have amassed a small collection of these myself. Mild has always been a curiosity to me, fuelled by the fact that it’s rarely seen at all in this part of the country. Bottled mild also seems to be uncommon – as I learnt recently, this probably dates back to the time when breweries primed their mild for bottling and labelled it brown ale – though brown ale was not necessarily always the same as mild, bottled mild was nevertheless rare. And anyway, mild in its modern form (low ABV and easy drinking) is strongly associated with sessions in the pub rather than supping on the sofa. That’s not to say it doesn't work in bottled form, as proven by the following thoughts on four beers, none of which were less than decent.

In 2012, Pretty Things brewed two milds in collaboration with Ron Pattinson. Both were based on archival Barclay Perkins recipes; the first, from 1838, was strong (7.4%) and highly hopped, whilst the post-Second World War beer demonstrates the effect of the war on brewing, having dropped to just 2.8% and using only a fifth of the hops of the previous incarnation. “This is mild as we know it today”, read Ron’s notes on the label, “a low-gravity, lightly hopped, dark beer.”

Having read about the beer on Ron’s blog, I was excited to find it for sale at Beers of Europe. I had assumed that a second batch had been brewed since then, and might not have taken the punt had I known the bottle was almost four years old. Mild – especially a low-alcohol one with light hopping – isn’t a style for the cellar, and I was a little worried about how it might have held up.

As it turns out, all was well. An initial musty flavour had me fearing the worst but, if I'm not mistaken, this is a characteristic of the hops. I found a similar flavour recently in a pint of Kent’s KGB bitter, an East Kent Goldings-heavy brew. It’s earthy, a little like tobacco with an edge of Shredded Wheat, and it’s not unpleasant. The pour isn't as dark as I expected – a dark amber rather than brown or black, with a fluffy with head. Golden syrup aromas burst from the glass, along with some marmalade. A thirsty first chug is dominated by that earthiness, accompanied by slightly sweet and nutty malty flavours which suggest toffee and marzipan, and the finish is dry and bitter with a slightly chalky, mineral aftertaste.

There’s a tingle of carbonation on the roof of the mouth, but too much – it remains soft and smooth, closer to a cask pint than your usual effervescent bottle, and if the body is a little thin, that smoothness more than makes up for it. I know poncing around with tasting notes, which isn't really appropriate for a mild from 1945 even if I think the beer is interesting enough to justify doing so. But, drinking this, it’s easy to see why modern milds were so popular – it’s tasty, but easy to drink and moreish with it.

Sadly I don’t have a bottle of Pretty Things’ 1838 mild to compare, but I do have this, a 9.5% monster based on an 1839 recipe from an unnamed London brewery. This may be pretty far removed from what we recognise as mild today, but the fact that this beer is billed as an ‘imperial mild’ still raises a smile. Even if we accept the word ‘imperial’ as simply a synonym for ‘strong’, doesn't using an archival recipe suggest that this is just what mild was like at that time? Perhaps with two hip breweries involved, they felt they needed to give the beer a craft makeover.

The pour is a slightly hazy burnt orange, and spicy citrus fruit (more marmalade) and Cointreau aromas rise from the glass. Take a sip and the beer seems to slip around in your mouth, the alcohol revealing itself in a slick, viscous mouthfeel, and orange peel spiciness fizzes on the tongue. There are zesty, bitter grapefruit flavours too which suggest vigorous hopping, alongside savoury bread-like malt notes before a hot, boozy finish that recalls desert wine.

The alcohol is a little harsh for my tastes, and whilst I understand that milds aren't necessarily mild in strength, it’s a bit odd to place a beer that tastes like Fuller’s Golden Pride in amongst beers a third of its ABV. I enjoyed it well enough, but I think its best approached as a curiosity.

On an unrelated note, when I saw that gypsy brewer Evil Twin had collaborated with Beavertown, I assumed the beer was brewed at the London brewery. According to the bottle, though, it was brewed at Westbrook “for Evil Twin”. And, since the recipe wasn't original, I can’t help but wonder what either of the breweries who put their name on this beer actually did towards making it.

I think of mild as primarily a dark beer, though it needn't necessarily be so, and so Thwaites Champion is much more what I expect from a mild than either of the previous beers. It pours a deep brown with deep red edges and beautiful, creamy off-white head which lasts throughout the glass. There’s very little on the nose save for a slightly unpleasant metallic note (I’m not drinking straight from the can, before you ask). Some berry sweetness makes itself apparent immediately, followed by malty caramel. There are some slightly vegetal hops in there, too, and a dry, quenching finish. The body is thin as you’d expect at 3.2% ABV, but that doesn't slip away in an unsatisfying away, instead demanding another thirsty glug. It’s not really a beer to think too hard about, designed as it is to be unchallenging but flavoursome, and it’s doing a good job in that respect. Probably tastes best on the fourth pint.

Another dark-ish offering here, with a little red-brown hue. As I poured it into the glass, an intense fruit ‘n’ nut aroma wafted towards me, recalling Chimay Bleue. As I poked my nose in proper, all I got was caramel, and lots of it. Stout-like roast malt flavour jumps out on the first sip, suggesting liquorice or very dark roasted coffee. Again, there’s some dank, slightly vegetal hops which, even if it doesn’t sound it, is pleasant and adds depth of flavour, and the finish is dry and hugely burnt-tasting and bitter. It’s basically a variation on a stout – an astringent, roasty stout rather than a smooth chocolatey stout, and you certainly can’t accuse the brewery of failing to pack sufficient flavour into a low ABV beer. Given the choice, I’d take the subtlety of Thwaites’ version over this, which is maybe a bit too much of a bitter smack in the mouth to be really sessionable.