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The Road to an American Brown Ale

07/11/2018

A learner’s beer? A bottled beer? A British style? An American style? All of those and more.

by Pete Slosberg and Martin Lodahl column editor (Brewing Techniques)

My first homebrew in 1979 was a brown ale. When I started Pete’s Brewing Company in 1986, my favorite beer in the world was Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale. I actually tried copying it for our first company brew. Although I failed in four attempts at copying it, it turned out that the fourth try produced what was to become Pete’s Wicked Ale. I loved it even more than Samuel Smith’s, so I went with it. Stylistically, Samuel Smith’s is an English brown ale. Pete’s Wicked Ale is an American brown ale.

Research that I conducted while at the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) in August 1994 revealed more information about the brown ale style than I thought existed. A seminar on beer styles organized by CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale, St. Albans, United Kingdom) provided valuable information about the brown ale style. I also discovered a trade organization, the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association, that had a rich library of books about beer. The library was chock full of brewing books that stretched back well over 100 years. Armed with a pad of paper, I set out to write copious notes about brown ales. Four hours later, I reemerged with the thought that my task was going to be a lot harder than I had originally thought. The style variously appears, then disappears, and then reappears in its sojourn through beer style history, each time with differing definitions.

This article traces a path through the history of brown ales to help provide a context for their modern interpretations.

MALT — THE CENTRAL THEME

What came out of my research was a fascinating history of beer in England and of beer in general. Amid a complicated web of factors ranging from water quality to social and economic developments, one consistent contributor to the history of brown ales was the malt.

Brown beers: Up to the late 1600s, malt was cured by burning hardwoods or straw, and the available technology made the heat difficult to control. As a result, most of the kernels were partially burnt on the outside. Almost all beers up to that time were therefore brown or dark in color.

As an example of how little darkened grain it takes to color beer, Pete’s Wicked Ale uses only about 1% chocolate malt, and the beer ends up 40 °L in color. Early English ales were decidedly dark brown.

Lighter colored beers were unavailable until 1680 at the earliest, when pale malts were invented through a new procedure that involved the use of coke to indirectly process the malt. Over the next century, malting techniques were further refined, and a greater variety of styles and colors became available. Light-colored beers require pale malts that are cured at temperatures no greater than 170–180 °F (77–82 °C). For the creation of India Pale Ales, maltsters developed an even paler malt by keeping the temperature at or below 150 °F (66 °C). This malt was called East India malt or “white” malt.

Brown was the darkest you could make a beer. By using a hot hardwood fire, maltsters could make brown malt, but any attempt to make the malt a darker color would result in an uncontrollable reaction that would burn the malt. According to Michael Jackson, “In 1817, D. Wheeler invented the cylindrical drum roaster, incorporating water sprays which could be used to quench the roasting grain instantly. This enabled controlled production of roast malts ranging from amber, brown, and chocolate through black. Similarly, raw barley could be roasted to a colour comparable to black malt”.

table i

The Falling Gravities of 20th Century British Ales

Year

Average Original Gravity

Year

Average Original Gravity

Year

Average Original Gravity

1900

1.055

1920

1.039

1943

1.034

1915

1.052

1921

1.043

1944

1.035

1917

1.049

1932

1.041

1947

1.033

1918

1.040

1941

1.039

1950

1.034

1919

1.031

1942

1.036

1951

1.037

*Data from H.A. Monckton, A History of English Ale and Beer (self-published, Sheffield, 1966).

Beers were lightened even further around 1840 thanks to the advent of transparent glass drinking vessels, which helped spark the beginnings of the Pilsener style in Bohemia. The cloudy and murky beers of England, traditionally quaffed from wood, pewter, leather, and pottery mugs, were enjoyed until the drinkers could see what they were drinking. With the advent of clear drinking glassware, Burton pale ales became very popular and appetizing.

THE DECLINE OF GRAVITIES

Although malting improvements are critical to the proliferation of styles, another major impetus to change can be as mundane as government and taxes.

What? An outside entity treading on the creativity of brewers in defining styles’? You’ve got it, especially in England! The Defense of the Realm Number 3 Act of 1915 created the Central Control Board, which wielded extreme powers.

The Board affected many aspects of beer and brewing, from pubs’ hours of operation and the number of licenses issued to the taxes levied on beer. The higher the gravity of the beer, the higher the taxes paid. Table I lends credence to the effect taxes had on beer styles. Obviously, some year-to-year differences existed because of the changing availability of materials during the two world wars. I was unable to obtain more recent information, but in general average original gravities are nowhere close to the levels enjoyed at the beginning of this century. As a matter of fact, Julian Baker’s book of 1905, The Brewing Industry, stated the average original gravity for mild ale as 1.050–1.058. Contrast this with Keith Thomas’s definition of milds as 1.030–1.036. His guideline definitions were first drawn up in 1988 for use by CAMRA tasting panels which were tasting only cask conditioned ales and not bottled beers. The document, CAMRA Beer Styles, is updated every year where appropriate.

This milding of British ales during the 1900s was actually the second instance of declining beer gravities in England; the first was 400 years earlier. According to T.H. Corran in A History of Brewing, the first book printed about growing hops in England (A Perfite Platform for a Hop Garden, written in 1574 by Reynold Scott) discussed the strength of beer and ales. Beer (that is, beer made with hops) had only about one-half the strength of ale (beer made without hops).

20TH CENTURY BROWN ALES

British brown ales: Improvements in malting techniques during the 18th and 19th centuries produced a plethora of new beer styles. The brown ale style doesn’t appear to be mentioned again until the 20th century. [Mild ales, the most popular brown-colored ales in the “lost years” of the brown ale style, will be the subject of an upcoming column.—Ed.] As a matter of fact, a review of a wide variety of sources produced only one explanation of the brown ale style: “Brown ale, a popular bottled beer, is a mild that has been specially prepared for bottling. Its gravity is a little above ordinary mild. It is rather sweet and is regarded by many, not without justification, as a ‘learner’s beer’”.

Brown ale is a bottled beer? A “learner’s beer”? In 1924, Barras Ramsey, chairman of Newcastle Breweries, spoke of the increasing demand for bottled beers. Over the next three years, Newcastle Brown Ale was formulated as a medium-strong, reddish-brown ale. It won the prestigious Challenge Cup in 1928 for the best bottled beer.

According to David Hughes, floor manager at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), brown ales in England are most often bottled. Brown ales are the bottled versions of the regional dark milds. The only cask-conditioned versions of brown ale in England that Hughes was aware of are Vaux’s Double Maxim, Titanic Brewery’s Staffordshire Knot, Newcastle’s Big Lamp, and one at the Steampacket Brewpub.

Hughes also expressed his belief that brown ales were primarily a working class or ladies’ drink. There are several reasons for this. First, milds are lower in gravity and therefore cheaper under UK excise laws. Second, these ales are less bitter than pale ales and thus easier to quaff in large quantities. Traditionally they were used to replace fluids lost during manual labor, and the relative absence of bitterness in milds and brown ales has historically made them more appealing to women than bitter pale ales. Third, brown ales in the bottle would usually be bought from either a shop or pub for consumption at home, also contributing to their working class image.

Differing definitions: The National Guild of Wine and Beer Judges in England gives the following definitions for two types of brown ale:

  • London brown ale should have an original gravity of 1.035–1.040, giving an alcohol level of 3.5–4.0% (v/v). Color may vary from light to dark brown. The bouquet is malty backed by caramel. The beer should be sweet on the palate, giving a smooth blend of malt and caramel with low hop flavor.
  • Newcastle brown ale [generic style definition] should have an original gravity of 1.045–1.050, giving an alcohol level of 4.4–5.0% (v/v). The color should be reddish brown, and the bouquet a blend of caramel and hop. The flavor should be a full-bodied blend of caramelized malt with medium bitterness and noticeable sweetness.

A Basic Guide to Beer Styles, by Professor Keith Thomas of the University of Sunderland Brewing Sciences, does not list brown ales, but does reference dark milds as being dark brown to black with the possibility of caramel character for aroma and taste. The gravity is lower (1.030–1.036), and the bitterness is 14–28 IBUs. The next step up from milds within the “brown color” category is porter.

Michael Jackson has stated, “Brown ale was originally a London style. Full-colored brews in general, whether the related styles of brown ale and dark mild or porter and stout, were traditionally associated with London and the South [of England] because they were the styles best suited to local waters. Burton switched to pale ale when it was realized that this style could be brewed especially well with a water rich in gypsum, whereas London’s supply has a relatively high proportion of calcium carbonate and some sodium chloride. These salts favored the production of ‘luscious’ brews (where crystal malt contributes to the concentration of natural sugars and contributes a toffeeish richness)”.

American brown ales: Within the past 10 years or so, a new style variant has emerged in the United States — American brown ale. The original gravity is in the 1.040–1.055 range, close to Newcastle brown ale in gravity and color, but with a more evident hop bitterness and aroma.

Why would American brown ales be more hoppy? My supposition is that as home brewing became more popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, hops became a fun ingredient to play with for aroma and flavor — at least they did for me! In that sense it was a good thing I didn’t have a recipe for Wicked Ale handed down to me through several generations. I experimented with a nontraditional approach to the style, and the fourth try ended up being Wicked Ale. I found that the balance of Nut Brown Ale was too much on the sweet side and that the addition of more hops gave a delightful counterpoint to the sweet, roasted maltiness of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown. That basic roasted maltiness, however, is still similar in both beers.

Pete’s Wicked Ale is made with pale, caramel, and chocolate malts and is spiced with Brewer’s Gold and Cascade hops. The original gravity is 1.052, and the bitterness units are 29. Dry-hopping with Brewer’s Gold enhances the aroma. It still surprises me that it takes only a tiny percent of chocolate malt to give the beer its nice, dark, reddish-brown color and slightly burnt taste. When I stumbled onto it I certainly liked it, and I guess others did too: last year, we made over 100,000 bbl of it, and in 1992 Pete’s Wicked Ale was the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) gold medal winner in the brown ale category.

Brown ales did not receive recognition as a medal category at the GABF until 1988. Until that year, all ale styles other than porters, stouts, and cream ales were lumped into one category called Ales. Because of the increased number of brown ale entries in 1988, they were given their own category.

At that time, the style definition was as follows: “Brown ales are reddish-brown to dark brown top-fermented ales with a sweetish palate, full body, and low to medium alcohol content. They are lightly hopped.” That sounded awfully like the English definition.

In 1991, the GABF created an American brown ale category. Commercially available examples of American brown ales besides Pete’s Wicked Ale include Brooklyn Brown, Lost Coast’s Downtown Brown, and Full Sail Brown Ale.

It is worth mentioning that we in the States are blessed to have such a wide breadth of beer styles available. Just because American brown ales have become popular does not mean that English brown ales are not available from American pubs and microbreweries. For the past couple of years, the winners in the English brown ale category at the GABF have been brewpubs. The last two Gold Medal winners were Sara’s Brown Ale from Yegua Creek in Dallas, Texas, and Home Run Ale from Champion Brewing in Denver, Colorado.

ENIGMATIC BROWN ALES

Is the brown ale style confusing? To me, after my research, the answer is yes. The brown ale style has seen many changes over the centuries and even within the past few years. The range of characteristics is extremely wide, but the one constant over all of the subcategories is the distinguishing color — brown.

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