Where Are All the Brown Ales?

The cold has crept in and winter has descended upon us.   As such it’s time for barley wine, spiced ale, Russian Imperial Stout and other boozy beers to keep us warm and cozy. I always enjoy the big beers of winter but sadly this winter feels rushed. It’s like we went right from summer to winter and skipped autumn. I feel this way due to the absence of one of my favorite beer styles, brown ale! Yes, I went to the Vancouver Fresh Hop Festival (which was fun and interesting) and was pretty autumn-ish (autumny?), but the lack of brown ale offerings from local breweries and brew pubs and bars was noticeable this year (at least to me).

Each time I stop into one of my favorite local beer bars like Caps N’ Taps, A Beer at a Time, or Grapes n’ Growlers, all really good spots incidentally), there’s usually few to none to be found amid the throng of IPAs. I recently made a trip to a Bev Mo and was surprised there was so little brown ale on the shelf. Is it possible I am one of very few beer drinkers who seek this style out?

So what is Brown ale exactly? After all there is a lot of ‘brown’ colored beer out there: Dusseldorf Altbier, Old Ale, Belgian Quad, Scotch Ale, Belgian Dubbel, etc.  What I’m talking about are the brown ales of British origin. These beers are balanced and dance beautifully between malt and bitterness with flavors of toffee, chocolate, and a nutty character that rounds out the profile…At least that describes some brown ale. Maybe the difficulty with brown ale is the variety found among them. A good example of this might be a comparison between New Castle Brown Ale and Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale. Both are considered examples of a (Northern) British Brown Ale but are dramatically different. New Castle is copper colored whereas Sam Smith is a darker mahogany. Samuel Smith has a deeper malt character and fuller mouth feel, while New Castle has brighter fruit character. Both are highly drinkable and delicious but, very different.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) offers an extensive guideline to all beer styles (or at least most). The BJCP made a departure from previous years with the 2015 Beer Style Guidelines. 2015 BJCP Guidelines Brown British Beers, they lists 3 beers: Dark Mild (Category 13a), British Brown (Category 13b), and English Porter (Category 13c). Prior to this, there were also 3 brown types; however they were denoted as Mild, Northern Brown, and Southern Brown. “English Porter” was included with the Porter section and labeled Brown Porter. Currently there is also American Brown Ale, Category 19c.

The obvious commonality within the British Brown category is the color.  Each style contains a degree of brown ranging from copper to dark brown. Additionally, crystal malt adds a sweet toffee flavor that is also a common theme within the styles. American Brown Ale is the only style that has any significant hop presence, but even with more apparent hop notes, it is still in concert with the malt character.

Brown ale has a deep history in England. In fact, most beer up to about the 1700s, was brown. As malting technology improved maltsters discovered ways to kiln grain without adding the darker color. As lighter colored beers became en vogue, brown ale’s popularity waned in the shadow of pale ales and light colored lagers.

In the U.S. brown ale traces its history to Northern California homebrewers who in the 80’s began brewing bigger, hopped up versions of their English cousins. Thanks to a homebrew competition in Texas, the American Homebrewers Association eventually created a category for the style, which eventually became American Brown Ale.

Though there are a number of brown ales on the market today, the shelves and taps are still jammed with IPA. I love IPA like the next craft beer nerd but what I love more than the best IPA out there is variety.  Brown Ale is another style to explore and should not be overlooked. Maybe it’s because the name sounds bland, or that it doesn’t boast the newest, sexy experimental hop variety available. Whatever the reason for its lackluster reception, I just find it odd. Who doesn’t like a toasty, biscuit, toffee, chocolate flavored anything?

When you consider it’s easily one of the most food friendly beers on Earth this should be a go-to style for beer lovers everywhere. Try brown ale with hard cheeses, grilled meats, harvest time vegetables, you name it. In discussing the flexibility of pairing brown ale with sushi, Ray Daniels, author of “Brown Ale: History, Brewing Techniques, Recipes” had this to say, “Years ago I did a pairing exercise in Japan where we were looking for beer to go with different types of sushi. While there were some cases where other beers were better, I remember that for many of the pairings brown ale was about the best we could do. That was really the point that I realized brown ale’s ability to pair decently with a lot of different things.”

I’m with Mr. Daniels. I can’t think of much it couldn’t go with; plus it’s fantastic on its own. So the next time you are contemplating your next beer purchase, make it a brown ale. There’s Sierra Nevada’s Tumber, Big Sky’s Moose Drool, New Castle Brown Ale, Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, AleSmith Nut Brown Ale... The list is long.  If for nothing else, drink these beers to keep the style alive. We need to show retailers there is a demand for this amazingly drinkable beer, and not just in autumn, but all year round.