Monday, 17 August 2015

Brown ale roundup

In my last brown ale round-up, I linked to a Beervana article about the use of caramel colouring in Newcastle Brown Ale. I may have misunderstood the situation - I thought the controversy was based on the use of an additive to obtain the beer's colour, but in fact it was based on health concerns around the colouring in question, 4-MEI. In any case, we hopefully all agree that artificial colourings used in the likes of Coke and Pepsi don't belong in beer.

Another thought-provoking development in the world of brown ale is this post from Ron Pattinson, in which he shares a recipe for Adnams XX mild from 1950. Here, Ron says that Adnams Nut Brown Ale would likely have used the same recipe, though primed differently for the bottle. This reminded me of a conversation I had with @WestBromEL after my initial brown ale posts. He'd always been told that brown ale was essentially bottled mild, and it is true that mild is rarely bottled. No beer books on my shelf mention any such link between mild and brown ale, but clearly there was such a relationship at one time. Anyway, here are some brown ales I've been drinking lately, starting with an old classic.

For months, I couldn't find Mann’s Brown Ale anywhere. I wanted to include it when I did my initial brown ale round-up in the early days of this blog, but nowhere near me stocked it. Eventually, I found myself in one of those enormous ASDA superstores when I clocked Mann’s bottles on the shelves, and became consumed with excitement which I knew, even at the time, would inevitably outstrip the quality of the beer. I was mainly just curious – Mann’s is often cited as an example of a now near-extinct breed of brown ale, a counterpart to the likes of Newky Brown. You’ll find little bitterness and no dry finish to Mann’s – it was reportedly considered close to a soft drink at one time, which I can understand. It’s not just the meagre 2.8% ABV, it’s also the sweetness and easy drinkability. It is refreshing and thirst quenching, but in much the same way water is, and not very much like beer is. It also tastes an awful lot like cola to me, with a finish that recalls sparkling mineral water, and hints of treacle and toffee flavour.  I can’t imagine anyone ever thinking “I think I’ll have a nice beer” and then enjoying drinking this.

Thornbridge Charlie Brown (peanut butter brown ale)
My hand has often hovered over Charlie Brown in bottle shops, but something always stopped me taking the plunge. It’s a brown ale with peanut butter and, whilst I love brown ale and love peanut butter, I somehow couldn't quite believe it could be as great as it sounds. Still, I eventually had to try it. Upon pouring, the peanut aroma is immediately evident – it doesn't really smell of peanut butter, but more like raw peanuts with the husk still on. I was expecting more peanut on the initial taste – this is more like a brown ale that heightens the peanut butter flavours that are usually to be found somewhere in beers of this style, rather than providing a massive peanut butter hit. That’s fine – I still want it to taste of beer, otherwise I’d just eat a peanut butter sandwich.  Trouble is, I'm not overly enamoured with the base beer – the body is too thin to work with the peanut butter richness, and there’s an unpleasant, slightly vinegary acidity in the background that also clashes. I was a little disappointed, but not because brown ale and peanut butter don’t go together – I just don’t think this is a great brown ale to begin with. 

North Laine Brewery Deadwood
This one is currently available in cask-conditioned form at Brighton's North Laine brewpub so, if you're interested, you should probably get over there and try it while you can. And it is definitely worth a try, even if my pint wasn't without flaws. The beer is aged in bourbon barrels (edit: it's actually aged on bourbon-soaked oak chips, not in a barrel), which in principle is an excellent idea - it's usually stouts that get this treatment but, since your average brown ale is a little lighter-bodied, you're less likely to end up with anything so thick and oily as certain barrel-aged stouts. The bourbon profile in Deadwood is expertly judged, never overpowering the beer - the whisky brings honey and vanilla, and the time in the wood brings a dry, red wine-like finish. The further down the glass you get, the less prominent the bourbon notes, and bitter chocolate and grassy hops come to to foreground. Unfortunately, my pint was let down by a lack of body - it lacked the smooth, substantial mouthfeel I'm looking for from cask ale, and felt thin and watery. I'm hoping to try it again while its around - perhaps my complaints are simply due to the inconsistency of the cask, and it is otherwise a very good beer.

So far I've mainly been interested in British-brewed brown ales but, since there aren't huge numbers of them, I'm going international with this time. I’d heard some good things about Norway’s Lervig, but unfortunately, their brown ale is a dud. There’s a little toffee, a little chocolate and, if you swill the beer around in your mouth desperately looking for it, a touch of hop bitterness. But overall, it’s watery and bland.

I was expecting a powerfully hopped American brown ale from this, but it’s actually a more nuanced beer. The recipe is inspired by brown ales from the brewery’s past which, in turn, shows a strong British influence – liquorice, treacle, caramel and fruit cake are all in there, bringing to mind something like Harvey’s Bloomsbury Brown if it were twice as strong. A more modern twist is the use of Citra hops, which didn't exist when Anchor was brewing these early beers. Initially, I couldn't get any of the hop flavour at all, but it comes out as the beer warms, with a subtle gooseberry tang. It may not have the hop hit I was expecting, but this is a great beer.

I have a big soft spot for Triple fff, as they are responsible for what I think was my first ever encounter with cask ale, many years ago. Whilst a little south of legal, I once entered an establishment in the brewery's home town of Alton, Hampshire and, in a bid to convince the barman I was surely of proper drinking age, asked for a beer recommendation. He suggested Moondance, their Best Bitter. I professed to love it at the time, though I wonder now how much I truly liked it and how much I was just pretending to be a grown up. I’d certainly love to try it again.

And, perhaps fittingly, Triple fff are the outfit behind what I think is my first taste of cask brown ale – all the others I’ve tried have been from kegs, bottles or cans. In fact, I think hoppy brown ales might work best from casks; I’ve always found well-hopped beers softer and more rounded in cask form compared to the spikier, punchy keg equivalents. Both versions have their merits, but the smoothed-out hops in this beer work nicely with the malt flavours – the balance is perfect. The malt brings caramel and toffee along with a big hit of wafer biscuits, with tangerines from the hops. It’s excellent.

The Kernel Brown Ale
The Kernel's interpretation of brown ale pours disappointingly black. I'm worried I'm in for a thin-bodied porter. But then, as I go for a sip, dark ruby colours slosh around in front of me - that's better. The nose is a big whack of cereals, and the first sip is full of roasty, toasted malt flavours. It actually is a little like a porter, though perhaps medium-bodied where a darker beer might be thicker. In fact, it's the perfect body for a brown ale according to my preferences. Some caramel and toffee inch the beer away from porter territory, and there's a citrus zing in the finish; although the label doesn't tell us which hops are included, I'd guess something American and beginning with C. This is delicately done, though - it's not an American brown ale, it's a modern British version which looks to the US for influence. I like it a lot.


I've also recently come across a couple of brown ales with the audacity to call themselves 'imperial'. They'll get their own post next week.

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