Brown is used in craft beer circles as a synonym for boring. Admittedly, people are usually talking about bitter (Boring Brown Bitter) when they use this slight, but there is a clear preference for beers that are either decidedly pale or decidedly dark. And let’s face it, the humble brown ale hardly screams “glamour”, does it? New Zealand’s 8-Wired brewery, whose Pacific-hopped Rewired is an excellent interpretation of the style, wonder, “have the mass brewing companies driven the style into oblivion by claiming it for their most unattractive products?” They might have a point there – the rather undistinguished Newcastle Brown Ale is probably the prominent example for British readers.
Brown ale remains a bit of a blind spot for me. I feel as though I like the style based on some versions I’ve tried – Brew By Numbers’Willamette and Summit variety was memorable on keg, and a bottle of Brooklyn Brown Ale really impressed – but I almost never see it around. So I decided I should fill in some gaps and seek out some current examples of the style. I’ve tasted six beers, split into two very broad categories – ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’.
Now, allow me to acknowledge the flaws in my own plan before someone else does; some of these ‘modern’ examples use US hops, and may even be billed as American Brown Ale. This is a flaw in that it isn’t exactly fair to compare a beer spiked with US hops to an example using all British varieties, especially if I confess a preference for assertive New World hops. However, I think it’s valid in that it follows the evolution of the style – like so many other half-forgotten British beers, US craft brewers have made their own interpretations and this in turn influences the current wave of small British breweries. If I was doing a similar round up with IPAs, for example, I’d be tempted to include both Worthington White Shield and Punk IPA, because these two very different beers would give you a sense of the way the style travels and is constantly reimagined. So there.
Part 2, featuring three 'traditional' brown ales, will follow tomorrow.
(Incidentally, I hit upon this idea before discovering Boak and Bailey’s excellent porter taste-off, but you should definitely read that too.)