Brown Ale Considered

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Alan in Holland suggested I write some thoughts on brown ale, a category he always found somewhat unclear. His perception actually accords with the beer’s place in brewing and beer history. Although if you look closely enough, the general pattern emerges.

First (in Britain’s primal communities) there was ale – fermented barley malt, probably not boiled, no hops, although sometimes flavoured with herbs or spices. A sweetish, bready drink (probably), with little shelf-life.

Later came beer proper, inherited from Holland and the other Low Countries when the Dutch and Flemings migrated to Suffolk and other eastern parts, mid-1500’s. This was an infusion of malted barley, and sometimes other grains, boiled with the resinous flowers of the hop vine and then fermented. Beer kept better than ale due to the preservative and ascorbic qualities of the hop. For a long time, ale and beer co-existed although in time even ale used hops, but less than for beer.

For colour, ale was generally light-coloured, beer was darker and approaching to black in the case of porter and stout. Porter and stout were always beers, not ales although both are top-fermented vs. the sedimentary fermentation of lager.

However, this scheme was never airtight. 1700’s brewing manuals give recipes for both pale and brown season beers – beers laid down to mature and protected by their higher content of hops. Conversely, there are Georgian recipes for common – not 1800’s – pale ale and brown ones, including a strong ale called “stitch”, probably linked to the expression to be stitched up, still understood in Britain.

Thus, by the 1700’s, both beer and ale could be brown or pale or indeed amber. The really important distinction was in terms of hop levels. For much of the 1800’s, beer was well-understood: it was a decidedly bitter drink of porter, stout, or India Pale Ale – confusingly, IPA was beer not ale despite the moniker. True ale could be mild (new) or aged and if aged it had more hops than mild ale, but all things equal ale was on the sweet or at least non-bitter side.  An ale meant for keeping (aging) always had less hops than a beer of the same strength, approximately half according to the researches of beer historian Ron Pattinson.

Today, most beer in my opinion is actually ale except for the most bitter examples of IPA and stout, and the reason is that hop levels today are far lower than in the 1800’s. In effect ale and beer have merged and you can have colours of each in any hue and of any strength. Nonetheless the old distinction lingers in that England’s “pint of mild” where you can still get it is almost always less bitter than a brewery’s “pint of bitter” aka pale ale aka India Pale Ale, the meanings are synonymous.

Brown ale seems to have declined by the end of the 1700’s, as porter and stout rose in appreciation that is. This was probably due to the more complex palate and evolved flavour of the black beers. The odd brown ale was still made though through the 1800’s, and the type resurged in the 1900’s, generally as a bottled beer. Newcastle Brown Ale is or was famous as a brown ale type, and there were sweeter ones such as Mann’s Brown Ale, still made I believe. I would think 1700’s brown ale had a somewhat smoky taste due to being made, as porter was, from all-brown malt then. 20th century brown ale does not have that taste. The keynote signature is a caramel mildness, but each brewer had/has his own take. Today craft brewers make all manner of browns so that stylistically it is impossible to classify them easily.

If one can generalize at all, brown ales are usually not highly hopped, and in this sense reflect the lesser-hopped quality ale had traditionally. History’s hand can be seen at work, albeit one must peer to discern the outline and with the benefit of some historical study.

10 thoughts on “Brown Ale Considered

  1. You’re right, Porter diverged from brown ale and became a distinct style. Brown ale evolved as well, but used malts other than the classic brown (or the black ‘patent’ used in Porter). But I think it was extract/efficiency that drove these developments more than anything.

    • I agree Derek, and thanks for these thoughts. Good article by Alan Pryor in second to last issue of Brewery History of how total extract was a preoccupation even before the hydrometer, and the different ways it was achieved.

      Gary

    • Yes I know James Sumner’s works, and have read this before. Excellent as always from him. The hydrometer is a well-known part of the porter grist story. Experiments have been made with creating an all-brown malt modern beer, I can direct you if interested to see the results.In other words diastatic browns have been produced by home brewers using old techniques to kiln a less efficient but still productive brown mash.

      Gary

  2. I’d say that it was technology that drove this style more than anything. Historically brown beer was made with brown malt, but eventually the saccharometer was introducted to the brewery. Side note: This is often attributed to Richardson who popularized its use, but Baverstock may have actually been the first (who is possibly one of my ancestors).

    Once Black ‘patent’ malt was introduced, they realized that they could use it for colour (and some flavour), while getting far more extract from pale malt. Consequently, the Brewers (and/or owners/bean-counters) wheeled the public off the more flavourful (but less efficient) brown malt. If you look at the brewers logs from the 1800s, you’ll see how the went from all brown, then gradually reduced it until they didn’t use it at all.

    Once you go black, you never go back… Or so they say!

    • Thanks Derek, all true with regard to porter certainly except that London breweries continued to use some brown malt in the grist until porter was discontinued in the mid-1900’s, Ron has shown this.

      This new grist of pale, brown, black patent and sometimes amber could have been used for an ale version of brown beer but it wasn’t, I think probably because porter became an unaged drink largely anyway, so there was a kind of merger. I.e., if your basic dark brown-to-black beer is using less hops over the decades and is sent out mild, why make an ale version, that is your ale version…

      Nonetheless brown ales were made in the northeast in America in this period, perhaps a survival of early 1700’s practices. Also, porter never was a huge seller here, so to the extent it was made it co-existed with brown ale just as it had in mid-1700’s London (brown stitch was strong ale; brown stout was strong porter).

      When brown ale re-emerged from 1902 with Mann’s Brown, I think black patent was not used except possibly very tiny quantities to adjust colour as for many beers. The keynote became caramel malt (crystal), product of late 1800’s technology. That’s why it was really a new style, without the burned tinge of porter.

      Gary

  3. Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, Todcaster (near York), England, has been a favorite of mine for years. There are a few pretty good brown ales scattered around the US of A, but the one I liked best, “Goose”, from a microbrewery in Frederick, Maryland, disappeared when the brewery folded a dozen years ago. Haven’t found anything to replace it so I’ve gone back to the S.Smith’s (or I pick up some local, session ABV porters). And, I agree with you on the Newcastle – I’ve always considered it closer to Bass ale than the browns if only because of consistency and mouthfeel.

    • Thanks Harry. Newcastle actually too is quite reasonably hopped, as much as Guinness I’d say. That may be its “Bass/beer” heritage. Many more browns in England were more sweet/less bitter, e.g. Mann’s from London, started circa-1900. I feel Mann’s and that type are descendants of 1700’s brown ale. True, brown ale then was probably more smoky, and was stronger, but there is a line of continuance still.

      Sam Smith’s version is good, on the dryish side, perhaps more an emulation of Newcastle (which was influential) than anything else, hard to say.

      All these things merge after a while, ale in Burton prior to the development of IPA was brown and sweet, although strong, so parts of the country always had sweet brown beer (not hoppy)…

  4. Gary.
    Thanks for this!
    Much clearer…….
    I haven’t had a Newcastle Brown in many years, but I do recall it being, as you say, less hopped. Also very mild tasting.
    Is it possible that this style continued (survived) more in the north of England?
    Alan.

    • No problem. So it’s mostly ale originally not bitter, then less bitter, generally pale but some was brown (e.g. in London 1700’s, in Burton in 1700’s), the brown mid-strength seemed to be taken over by porter and stout (beers per se), brown ale still appears here and there in the 1800’s though including North America, and finally resurges in the early 1900’s. While its grist often was different to dark mild – Ron has done a lot of work in this area too – still the bottled form functioned, or IMO, as a bottled equivalent to dark mild ale. (Mild ale generally was light though before 1900, it changed after: another story).

      Newcastle Brown (1920’s) is complicated because it seems to have been an attempt to copy a Burton pale ale – a Bass or that type of beer (beer beer). So it may not really be a descendant of anything and ended as a new style which became associated with parts of the north in England. From the 70’s onwards at least it was always fairly mild and would be an ale in the old terms though (or IMO).

      Gary

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