In my last post about brown ale, I mentioned a post on Ron Pattinson’s Shut Up About Barclay Perkins blog which alluded to certain historic brown ales as bottled versions of mild. Most beer books will contain a fairly brief summation of brown ale’s past, but this was a new one on me, and made me realise how little of the style’s history I actually knew. What details I stumbled across were initially confusing and hard to piece together. The answer was, obviously, to search the term ‘brown ale’ on Ron’s blog and sift through the results. If you want to know the facts about the evolution of a historic beer style, Ron Pattinson really is your man. His research is based on extensive trawling of brewer’s records and, whilst some interpretation may occasionally be required, I think it’s safe to assume any information posted at Barclay Perkins is documented fact.
For my own benefit, I decided to compile a brief history of brown ale as I now understand it, based on Ron’s blogs on the subject. I may have misinterpreted certain things, and I don’t claim to understand the tables of numbers or certain technical information he posts, but the basics I’ve discovered there have helped straighten the story out in my own mind and are hopefully fairly accurate. If you’re a more seasoned beer expert than I or have a head for figures, Ron’s work will be right up your street.
Brown ale began life in the 18th century, when it was available as either Common Brown Ale, or the stronger Stitch. At this time, ‘ale’ and ‘beer’ were distinct from one another – beer was stronger, and heavily hopped to prepare it for a keeping period of 9-12 months. Ale was lightly hopped, and drunk as soon as the cask cleared. Common Brown Ale and Stitch were both made from brown malt. Around the turn of the century, the increasing popularity of porter saw these styles died out. Brown ale ceased to exist for around a century.
Mann’s were the first brewery to revive the style, and it returned to the mainstream again in the 1920s. Though all were very different to the original brown ales, these modern versions were stylistically diverse. The commonly accepted split between weaker, sweet beers from the South and strong, drier beers in the North is quickly debunked by Ron’s findings – many Northern brown ales were low in alcohol and Southern beers strong. Newcastle Brown Ale was one of the few stronger brown ales to survive, whereas Mann’s, one of the strongest brown ales in the 1930s, ended up with an AOV of just 2.8%. When writers like Michael Jackson later came to write about the style, these were the principle examples on the market, which may have contributed to this imagined divide.
There is a link between brown ale and mild, especially in the South. Many breweries bottled their dark mild as brown ale, though the beer was primed differently for the bottle. This could explain why brown ale was almost exclusively bottled, and mild usually draught. Exactly why bottled dark mild wasn’t simply called dark mild isn’t clear. Brown ale is absent from the brewing records of certain breweries who are known to have sold them, and this is because it was brewed exactly as the breweries’ dark mild. This was far from the case for all brown ales, though – many were far stronger than any mild and brewed to their own recipe. Some breweries also brewed a stronger version known as Double Brown Ale. The colour of these modern brown ales was not imparted by brown malt, nor roasted malts, but from dark sugar or caramel. In cases where mild was bottled as brown ale, caramel may have been added.
And finally, an expression that always confused me - Nut Brown Ale, which appears on beer labels to this day. This describes the colour of all kinds of brown beer - it does not specifically refer to brown ale, and is certainly not a distinct sub-style - and was used in traditional poems and songs, especially those heard at public feasts.
Conversation for your next dinner party, eh? I've often noted how vague the definitions of brown ale are and how different one can taste from another, and it would seem it has always been this way. Please do let me know if I'm confusing any of the details here, and thanks to Ron for his invaluable research.