From the silent stillness a gentle breeze rises, refreshment for the soul. After a few satisfying moments it fades. Again it reappears, not as strong, but equally satisfying. It sounds like the story of summer, but serves as a metaphor for Brown Ale.
Like a soft, fleeting zephyr, Brown Ale’s past escapes a tangible grasp. Beer historians know it was there, but can’t pin point it’s beginning, direction, or composition. According to Ray Daniels and Jim Parker, in their book “Brown Ale”, the first clear reference to the style was made in the 1750’s. However, an analysis of brewing and malting techniques suggests the style first appeared throughout England centuries earlier.
Mild Ale, the precursor of Brown Ale, struggled through time, in one form or another, often overlooked. As a ‘small’ beer (the low alcohol, light beer of its day) it was consumed, but not relished. Then, at the dawn of the industrial age, a change occurred. Factories sprung up across the United Kingdom, and as they grew their hungry mouths gobbled up an inconceivable mountain of fuel. Soon the soot belching smokestacks multiplied, populating the landscape with the sentinels of gray and grimy progress. Though dirty and ominous, they fired the country’s economy, and the riches that followed unanimously declared coal ‘King’.
Coal propelled England into a new age of power, on the backs of miners who struggled through long days in darkness, choking down clouds of dust raised in the black harvest. Emerging from the mines worn and tired, they immediately sought relief from their hellish thirst. So it was that in the taverns of Northwest England, miners came to value Mild’s rich, malty flavor. It was the perfect antidote to cleanse and restore a spirit nearly broken under the yoke of coal.
In time, Mild evolved as the miner’s taste asked for more from the beer. Then regional preferences appeared. In the north, the heart of coal country, Mild grew to fit a bigger, and demanding, thirst. Eventually its profile acquired a more potent alcohol content, often approaching 6% and at times exceeding it. This new version, darker and stronger, was the introduction of what was the fist Brown Ale.
Strong as they were, Brown Ales required some aging to smooth out the rough edges, but limited brewery capacity restricted production of the popular beer and brewers compromised by developing two variations. Mild referred to low alcohol, fresh, unaged beer, while Brown Ale was stronger and matured before serving. Unfortunately, the two cousins – Mild and Brown – fell from favor as the post-industrial world reduced the need for hard-working laborers. In fact, they nearly faded from view, but not quite.
In the early 1920’s a brewer for Scottish and Newcastle, responding to an increased demand for bottled beer, searched for a product that would stand up to the rigors of bottling. He reckoned a deep, amber brew would fit the bill. He was correct, and borrowing the name of the nearly extinct Brown Ale, prepared to release his creation.
Lower in alcohol than its predecessor, the new Brown Ale, in mimicking the older version, acquired a larger hop profile to produce a bolder, fuller, taste. It became known as the new Brown Ale of the North.
Meanwhile, in Southern England, brewers producing a slightly sweeter variation of the old Mild, also yearned for a bottled beer. Their desire to eliminate confusion between the draft and bottled versions of Mild, led to a straightforward solution, they simply named it by color – Brown. Thus, the journey of Brown Ale reached a crossroads. The old version of Brown Ale disappeared, leaving behind one name, but two different brown ales.
At first glance the grain bills for the two Brown Ales seem remarkably similar. Daniels and Parker suggest Pale Malt makes up the bulk of the recipe, weighing in at nearly 85% for both Northern and Southern styles. Caramel malt accounts for approximately 12% of Northern Brown, and Southern Brown equals that total by combining 8% Caramel and 4% Carapils. The two differ only in the smallest portion of the grain bill., Northern Brown uses about 3% Biscuit malt, while Southern favors an addition of about 2% chocolate malt.
Of more significance than the grain bill, it’s hops that truly sets the two Brown Ales apart. Northern Browns are hopped with Fuggles to a quite noticeable level approaching 33 Internal Bittering Units (IBU’s). Southern Browns, with their emphasis on sweetness, use Kent Goldings hops, for a subdued bitterness of only 18 IBU’s.
Another distinction is alcohol content. Northern Browns pack a fairly hefty punch of 4.2 to 5.0 percent. In contrast, Southern Brown’s exhibit a milder nature. As described by Daniels and Parker, the Southern varieties have a distinctive sweetness, and a fruity aroma not found in their Northern relative. Southern styles also appear somewhat darker in color, approaching dark brown, often with attractive reddish hues. Although many sources list sweetness as the defining characteristic, it remains far from cloying. Hops maintain an obvious presence, and while subdued, do contribute a soft bitterness. Surprisingly, Southern Browns deliver a body and flavor usually expected in much bigger beers, but they manage all that with a low alcohol content of only 3.5 percent.
With a profile designed for balance, Brown Ales rank near the top of all beer styles in pairing with food. Southern Browns match well with nuts, sweets, cheese, and a wide range of desserts. Northern Brown Ale, with its more robust profile, offers additional possibilities. Like Porters, they stand up to red meats, but extend their reach further, to fish, chicken, and rich pasta entrees. Hoppier versions cut through spicy meals such as Texas Chili, Mexican, or Thai foods, then move on to a spectrum of desserts from fruits to tempting chocolates. Without question Brown Ale earns the title ‘best choice’ for the dinner table. Its popularity is a reflection of its broad appeal as both session beer and thirst quencher.
Over the centuries the story of Brown Ale passed through both highs and lows. At times its banner has snapped proudly in the building winds of popularity, and hung slack through doldrums of anonymity. Today Brown Ale has surged forth yet again, surfacing as a breath of fresh air, and bellwether of craft brewing fashion. Perhaps this time the refreshing summer breeze won’t fade away, maybe this time the cool comfort of Brown Ale will blow long and steady.
By Gregg Smith, March 2001.