BROWN ALE TIME
To me brown ale is one of the harder to define styles. Not like beers labelled amber or golden ale, where what’s served up under the banner veers all over the visible beer spectrum (VBS) – when top is popped or tap jerked, anything from overcooked lager to brown soup might hit the glass. Unlike those, brown ale has a clearly defined style.
The problem I used to have with it is that, like them, most of the time you wonder what the point was. To me, based on experience, brown ale effectively falls somewhere in between the black beers (lagers) that look threatening but drink as clean as a whistle, and the more pugilistic end of the amber ale curve, or if the latter means little to you, think of a lighter porter. And it’s a darkish, blackish brown. It’s probably more toward the dark lager-ish side.
The problem I’ve had with them is if they’re too thin and mean, they seem watery, and if they’re not, they’re still not a heavy hitter beer and can come across a bit sickly and non-descript. When you’re paying what we’re paying for specialist beers here in Australia City, these are not sensations that you’re desperately hanging out for.
However, recently out of nowhere, something about the change in the weather, and/or brain chemistry, and/or another beer that reminded me of the brown ale style, got me in the mood to try out a few of them, and a pretty good strike rate of quality has kept me coming back.
Brown Ale is, as near as I can work out, meant to be dark in colour but not too thick or brutal in the flavour or the choking it down, maybe a hint of the sweet but not bathing in it, and something that cuts the sweetness, often characterised – and for once, in terms of wine-writery jargonism, not inaptly – as a nut-like edge, but just the edge, if you get what I mean.
With all of that, it should be readily drinkable, refreshing, and yet also get you sitting up a little with the flavour. That is a murderous little tightrope to walk and I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are plenty of hopefuls that go splat and take your tongue out with it.
But in the small-batch brewer age, apart from US pale ales that blow your eyebrows off with unmitigated hops, and India pale ales that punch your head into the middle of next week, one unexpected benefit has been an increased harvest of folks who care enough and know enough to tickle the tricky the brown ale mechanism in a way that gets it to work.
DOWNTOWN BROWN (Eureka, California, USA, 355ml, 5%)
They have cartoony Cubist label illustrations and hail from the Lost Coast Brewery & Cafe which doesn’t sound nearly as good as, say, just ‘Lost Coast Brewery’ and I can still forgive them all of this rococo folly as the beer is a keeper.
Unstinting in flavour yet a perfectly valid neck-wetter, has the pleasant unobtrusive but effective intimation of nuttiness around the edges of a pronounced but easy-going flavour – I’m struggling to fault it, within the style. One of the more difficult things to do with a brown ale, to me, is to make it a viable session beer. It’s either going to have so little flavour you wouldn’t bother or too much of a flavour you wouldn’t want to deal with for a night, or afternoon, or whatever. This is an exception – it seems to me to be a viable session beer. I think any limitations on the beer are those of the style. If you like something punchier, this is still a brown ale, and if you like something cruisier to toss back, this is still a brown ale. Beyond that, hard to fault.
I’d give it 8.5 out of 11 on the justly famous Leapster “one better” scale.
WINTERBRAUN ALE (Eureka, California, USA, 335ml, 8.0%)
Has the absent-minded amiability and all other qualities of the brown ale class, but a richness and complexity that you’d generally lay at the door of Porters and Stouts, but without the pugnacious qualities of the former or the thickness of the latter. It’s a smart idea for a hybrid and they pull it off. 10 out of 11 on the Leapster scale.
SAMUEL SMITH’S NUT BROWN ALE (Tadcaster, Nth Yorkshire, UK, 550ml, 5%)
There are a number of things I like about the label on this product. Firstly, it’s largely genuinely descriptive and informative, rather than running amok and astray, romancing with wine-writery gibberish. It’s a little documentary on a back label.
Also, while they might not exactly explain what ‘stone Yorkshire squares’ are (basically a type of container in which part of the brewing process takes place) that are twice referred to in the copy, they do have a picture.
And, for that matter, in it, the chap there seems to be in white protective gear of some kind, which offers some kind of connotation of hygiene if nothing else.
In particular, the all but inevitable ambit claim upon history that seems to go with any brewing concern of a certain kind of vintage, is merely, or simply, that Samuel Smith’s is “Yorkshire’s oldest brewery” as opposed to the UK’s, or what seems to be the several dozen or so strewn across Europe that claim to be the oldest brewery operating on the planet.
(The thought vaguely occurs after a while that they probably can’t all be right.)
Beyond this, some of you might be interested in the beer, and my take on it is pretty straightforward – this is the kind of beer that explains exactly why we have a Brown Ale style at all, and defines at least one highly viable version of it neatly.
It’s not lugubriously heavy, it does have pronounced flavour, but drinks with a light-bodied lager-ish ease, it’s got that definite tinge of nut-oriented savour to it, but it’s around the edges, not a big double uppercut up the taste buds, all accessories such as colour, head and matching handbag and earrings are done to perfection * and you should be pretty glad you chose it, and, presuming you were a little foolish like me, sorry you didn’t buy a second to accompany the first.
Presuming you don’t like your Browns with that little extra dagger of porter-like flavour and body – and that’s a perfectly valid variant on the style as far as I’m concerned – bring your mouth-hole into the garage and park it for a session. I’m fine on 9.5 out of 11 for this one.
BROOKLYN BROWN ALE (Brooklyn, New York, USA, 355ml, 5.6% alc/vol)
A handy companion piece to the previous beer in terms of the discussion, as it shades just the other side of the Brown Ale map. It’s not quite as e-zee drinkin’ (although still completely Larry Fine in that regard), has that extra gut-punch of malt coming on late in the middle and carrying through to the end of the gobful, and is very like a black lager with extra body, other than that characteristically nutty taste that separates the Browns. It is NOT big and heavy – not even by Porter standards let alone Stouts – but by comparison with the Samuel Smith model, it’s a little less sessiony. All the Brooklyn Brewery roster seem to be quality, and so’s this pleasant departure from their better-known flagship Brooklyn Lager. (Which is, in itself, a substantial departure from the ways of regular mortal lagers.) Brooklyn Brown to me is around 9 out of 11.
ROGUE HAZELNUT BROWN NECTAR (Newport, Oregon, USA, 355ml, 6.2%)
The “nectar” thing is pretentious. I’m not sure this is even something that can be taken as a criticism, when this seems to be more or less what they’re aiming at. One thing this beer does is something I’m kind of leery of – it has additives beyond the standard building blocks of beer-dom, i.e. hops, barley malt, water, yeast, maybe sugar, and I can live with the maize thing from Spanish and Italian beers, even if I don’t fully understand why this is necessary.
However, some good stouts are made with some degree of coffee infusion, and in this case, the Oregon Brewing Co. (as the Rogue folks are apparently more formally known) have completely mined a winner. It’s in the more flavour-bending line of Brown Ales, it tastes like hazelnuts, but they’ve stopped well short of injecting that into the body as well and making it a fulsome, palate bending and gut churning deal – it’s very drinkable, and what stops you drinking it is more likely to be the alcohol than any over-abundance of unmanicured flavour outbursts. The more adventuresome, less VB-driven beer absorbing human should definitely give this one a ride. I’ll say 9.5 out of 11.