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.