Illustration by David Witt
Ask brewers and beer drinkers alike about their least-favorite beer style (aside from light lager, of course) and the answer is likely to be brown ale. To many, brown ale is boring. It’s an in-between beer—neither here nor there. It lacks the creamy body and roasty snap of a porter and the juicy hop aromatics of an amber or a red.
Though disparaged and neglected, brown ales are delightfully flavorful beers. Their in-between status makes them extraordinarily versatile with food. Full of toasty, nutty melanoidins, they are equally comfortable with nutty hard cheeses, dark Mexican dishes, and barbecued red meats.
It is often said that at one time all beers were brown. This isn’t strictly accurate. Evidence exists for pale and red beers going back at least 1,300 years. But it is fair to say that brown ale is one of the oldest styles in Great Britain, the place where nearly all modern iterations originate. It was also once the most popular.
During the middle ages it seems, the browner the beer, the more highly it was regarded. According to a 1380 poem entitled “Piers Plowman,” when the Black Death created a seller’s market for peasant labor workers rejected weak “halfpenny ale,” demanding instead to drink “of the beste and of the brunneste that in Burgh is to selle.”
Brown beer retained its popularity into the first part of the 18th-century. Exported to the colonies, it was brewed in both Australia and North America. But palates changed as the century progressed. Drinkers’ tastes moved toward drier, bitterer brews. The sweet, brown beer was overtaken by its dusky sister, porter. By the end of the 1700s, brown ale had all but ceased to exist.
The first modern brown was introduced at the start of the 20th-century as a bottled beer by London brewer Mann, Crossmann & Paulin. The sweet, low alcohol brew was slow to catch on. But when taxation during World War I caused a general decline in beer strength, it became common to cover problems with low alcohol cask offerings by blending in the full-bodied, highly carbonated, bottled brown.
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In 1927, Newcastle Breweries introduced a stronger, drier brown beer. The so-called “Northeast strong” style brown ale was picked up by American brewers in the early 1980s. Brown ale took its place among the microbrew standards next to blond ale, pale ale, amber ale, porter, and stout. Gradually a new American brown style emerged that was more robust, bitterer, and had a higher degree of hop character.
The current Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines split English brown ales into two categories—southern and northern. They include mild ale under the broad brown ale category as well, but for the purposes of this profile I’ll consider it a different style. American brown ale is categorized under American ales.
Southern English brown is a sweet, low alcohol beer in the mold of the turn-of-the-century brew from Mann, Crossmann & Paulin. Mann’s Brown Ale is one of only a very few examples still being made. The style is considered by some to be in danger of extinction. It is light brown to almost black with a low off-white to tan head. Aromas are predominantly malty-sweet with caramel, toffee, and some dark fruit notes. The flavor follows suit, offering richly sweet caramel and toffee malt flavor with low tones of coffee, biscuit, and dark fruit. Hop bitterness and flavor are low to none at all.
Northern English brown is a drier, bitterer beer more in the vein of Newcastle. It is a dark-amber to reddish-brown beer with a low, off-white cap of foam. It has a lightly sweet malty aroma with notes of toffee, caramel, and nuts evident. Some herbal/earthy, English hop aroma may also be evident. The flavor leans slightly to malt with moderate sweetness and flavors of caramel, toffee, nuts, and biscuit. Hop bitterness balances the malt and the earthy flavors of English hop varieties may be noticeable. Northern English browns leave with a dry finish.
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