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.

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