In the months since I started this blog, I've paid particular attention to brown ale. I try to order brown ale or buy a bottle whenever I see it, because it’s an interesting style that I think is underused and underrated. Few brown ales I've tried taste alike, and the style is very loosely defined, which leaves more space for brewers to get creative – hence the existence of ‘imperial’ brown ales.
Style pedants will hate this term, of course. ‘Imperial’ refers to the extra-strong stouts brewed for export to the Russian imperial court in the 1700s. Brown ale never made such a journey, but the term has come to denote a stronger and altogether bigger version of just about any style from pilsner to saison. So imperial brown ale isn't a style with any tradition behind it, but one that’s been invented by brewers looking to experiment with the humble brown ale.
The two examples in question here are big beers – Nøgne Ø's Imperial Brown Ale is 7.2%, MRS Brown 9.5%. The brown ale story begins with Mann’s, now just 2.8% (though originally stronger), whilst encompassing big boozy beasts like these, and that’s just another example of the diversity I love in the style.
This beer contains vanilla, pecan and maple syrup. Sounds like a recipe for a delicious breakfast cereal rather than a great brown ale, but I’ve often found where Siren are involved, the wackier ingredients do tend to work with the beer. Not only that, but it’s aged in bourbon barrels, too, so we can expect flavours far removed from your average brown ale.
The beer pours very dark, almost black. There are translucent brown edges around the glass when held up to the light, but otherwise this looks much more like a porter or stout. The aroma is strong bourbon, vanilla and appetising, fresh chocolate. My first impression after a tentative gulp is of the sheer complexity of the beer – there are so much flavours going on at once - more chocolate and vanilla, toasted marshmallow, dark berries. The maple syrup only comes through as the beer warms, and is sweet and earthy and delicious, a little like caramel. The pecan is present towards the second half of the glass, too, and brings a certain bitter and dry quality. There’s warming whisky and a bitterness like dark chocolate in the finish.
It’s a beautiful beer, harmonious despite its complexity. The high ABV works with the bourbon flavours – yes, it’s boozy, but then it’s a beer with a pronounced whisky influence. Approached as a brown ale, though, it doesn't offer much – in fact, it almost begs the question of whether you can blow up a brown ale in this fashion without leaving the style behind. If this had been labelled a porter instead, I doubt it would have raised any eyebrows, though there isn't a roasted malt quality in MRS Brown. In any case, the style is really only used a base for the additional flavours – you’re never going to drink this and think “this is a great brown ale”, because the experience of drinking it is all about taking a sip and saying “oh I get the maple syrup now… and there’s a bit of pecan.” In any event, the most important thing is this – it’s a great beer.
Turns out you can inflate a brown ale whilst staying true to the style, as that’s exactly what Nøgne Ø have achieved here. Its colour is far more befitting a brown ale, and the aroma of caramel and currants is familiar although the ‘imperial’ nature of the beer brings a big whiff of booze, too.
Though it's brewed in Norway, stylistically this is somewhere between British and American takes on brown ale. The hops, for example, are a mix of East Kent Goldings, Chinook and Columbus, and the yeast is a traditional English ale strain. Honestly, I didn't get much of the C-hops, not even much bitterness. At the same time, it’s not sweet, just dominated by malt flavours rather than hops. Sherry, vanilla and toffee along with the elevated ABV give an impression of a soft and warm beer, and it’s satisfyingly full-bodied without being viscous and oily as strong dark beers can be.