Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Brown ale pt. 2 : Three 'traditional' brown ales

Brown Ale #1 - Newcastle Brown Ale

It makes sense to start here, doesn't it? Newcastle is likely to be the principle point of reference in many people’s idea of what brown ale is. It is also the only brown ale I was able to find in any supermarket or mainstream off license in Brighton. And, aside from anything else, I haven’t tasted it in years. After deciding to include it in this post, I had to think about whether I knew I didn't like it, or simply suspected it wasn't very exciting. I know I've drunk it before, but I think my main motivation for doing so was to appear more interesting by choosing something other than lager; I didn't make any tasting notes, put it that way.  Still, I’m determined to give it a fair chance and reserve judgement before I objectively taste it.

The first thing you’re likely to notice about Newcastle Brown Ale is that it isn't especially brown. When I imagine this beer, I’m picturing something akin to the water in the River Tyne; murky, maybe even a little gloopy. In fact, there’s an attractive translucence about it, and indeed the brewery are said to have tinkered with the colour for some years in an attempt to make it more visually appealing. This might explain the clear glass bottle, too. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a lightstruck beer, but nevertheless, clear glass is always a warning sign for indifferent brewing.

The nose is dominated by malt, and actually reminds me of lager more than anything. As the beer warms, the aroma gets a little grassier, maybe with a little hay, too, but there’s not much going on here. And the taste isn't exactly a revelation, either. It’s surprisingly sweet, and again, the most prevalent flavours are those you’d expect from a much lighter beer; lager-like malt dominates, with a slight lingering bitterness from the hops. If you try really hard, you might detect the slightest notes of stewed apples, ground almonds and hazelnuts. But that might just be wishful thinking. Imagine a drink that’s half Belgian dubbel and half tap water and you’re getting close.

Bland though it may be, this beer is at least refreshing, especially considering its usually consumed at temperatures far below those usually recommended for ale (mine spent about 45 minutes in the fridge before drinking, for what it’s worth). But my bottle is borderline flat, and the mouthfeel is thin and flimsy; it makes for easy drinking, but it’s fundamentally unsatisfying.

Would I drink it again? I might, if I happened to be stuck in a terrible pub where the only alternatives were awful mass-produced lagers. But I’d rather drink almost anything else. The bar is certainly set very low for the remaining brown ales in my selection.

And to follow, how could I resist Harveys' tongue-in-cheek “tribute”, featuring the eponymous castle on the label? My relationship with Harvey’s has been up and down; I've found some of their beers extremely disappointing and bland and some of them wonderful. I despised their Best Bitter for years until a revelatory few pints just before Christmas (in a student bar serving nothing but Best, Carlsberg and Guinness, of all places) confirmed that it is a terrific beer worthy of its reputation, and I suspect my disappointment with it in the past was due to poor conditioning in local pubs.

Harvey’s version of brown ale pours much darker than Newcastle’s. It is almost opaque, looking something like a porter or stout. The aroma shares characteristics with several of the brewery’s beers – perhaps it’s the house yeast I’m recognising here. It’s slightly vinous, or maybe closer to malt vinegar. The taste, thankfully, is more palatable than this would suggest, however, with black treacle, plums and some bread and cereal notes.  There’s a little sweetness, especially as the beer warms, with the slightest hint of chocolate. The mouthfeel is much more substantial than the Newcastle, thicker and with a pleasing tingle of carbonation on the tongue.

Given the choice, I’d probably opt for the more robust porter from the same brewery, but this is a very enjoyable beer, particularly well-suited to a wintery Sunday afternoon on the sofa.

If you’re looking for traditional examples of pretty much any indigenous British beer style, Samuel Smith’s beers tend to provide a good guide. Not every beer in their portfolio is great, but several are; Taddy Porter is a favourite, and I’m also very partial to their Imperial Stout, full of flavour at a very low ABV for the style. It makes sense that they’d brew a straight-up brown ale and, somehow making it sound even less exciting than it already does, they call it Nut Brown Ale.

It pours a caramel colour, far darker than Newcastle but nowhere near stout territory. The nose has more of that vinous quality I noted in the Harvey’s, mixed in with treacly malt and a little walnut. The flavour recalls wholemeal bread, and actually reminds me of biting into a nut; it’s very dry and bitter. If that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, I’d also point out that it’s very refreshing. The lingering bitterness in the finish and aftertaste reminds me very much of red wine, and drinking this I even get a little of the warm feeling in the chest that I get whenever I stray from the grain over to the grape.

It’s not the most exciting beer in the world, but for sheer drinkability, I’d rate Sam Smith’s the highest of the three traditional brown ales I've tasted. The red wine comparison and absence of overly bold and intrusive flavours make me think that this could accompany a wide variety of foods, and indeed the label suggests pairing it with dishes as diverse as roast grouse and biryani.

To conclude… it’s difficult to take a great deal away from this mini-tour of traditional brown ales. Newcastle Brown Ale has very little in common with the other two beers I tasted, but that’s to be expected from a beer produced by a multinational corporation rather than a small regional brewery. There were some characteristics shared by both Harvey’s and Sam Smiths; that molasses-like malt flavour is present in a somewhat muted form in certain porters, but is a key feature of both of these brown ales. Could it be a defining feature of the style? Both beers have a certain moreish dryness, too. Beyond that, there’s not much going on to define what I mean what I say brown ale. I’d try more to get a broader cross section if I could, but further traditional examples are simply not available in my area (I had hoped to sample at least Mann’s, which I understand is sweeter, but it doesn't seem to make it down to Brighton.) For the ‘modern’ breweries I’ll be sampling next, the canvas is almost blank.

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