Monday, November 21, 2011

What makes a (good) Brown Ale?

Anyone who has dabbled in homebrewing at one time or another is sure to have made a brown ale. It is practically the poster child of beer styles for nascent brewers and beer drinkers, as it has a reputation for being both easy to brew and even easier to drink. Any trip down the aisle of your local bottle shop or grocery store and you'll be sure to find some form of brown ale - there is always the ubiquitous Newkie and Sam Smith's Brown Ale, along with an assortment of honey brown and caramel brown ale concoctions. And let us not forget those brown ales hiding under the name 'dark ale'. Considering that most breweries and brewpubs now have a brown ale on their lineup, it would be easy to assume that brown ale is finally moving up in the beer world.

Yet, for as as many pints and bottles of brown ale are currently brewed and consumed, the style is not what any beer enthusiast would call "interesting." Rather, brown ale seems to be perpetually stuck in a position where it is often brewed, but forgone of any special treatment or updating. A quick look at beer rating websites like HateBeer and BA reveal a pretty sad lot of beers. The vast majority of examples rarely get any rating above a (B) and those that do are generally the Americanized - alcoholic, hopped to hell - versions of the style. A common complaint is that brown ales are "boring" and "simple." When we look at homebrewed recipes, we find much of the same sentiments and similar, 'boring' grits; pale malt, medium crystal, and some chocolate malt. Hopping rates are low, US or UK hops at one or two additions with a gentle bitterness. The only real development seems to be found in the American interpretation of the style, where you essentially get a brown colored beer with lots of American "C" hops. A brown pale ale of sorts.

Ok, so what makes a good brown ale then?

I've been brewing brown ales for a while now and my interpretation of the style tends to venture closer to a session strength Brown Porter, or bigger SEB, than the standard Nut Brown. In fact, the only brown ale that I've ever had get a first place in a BJCP competition was a beer that was brewed as an pale ale, but turned out a bit too dark for the style (I added pale chocolate malt). All the others got hammered for being "not to style," or "too dark" and/or "too much roast character," or some other comment about not following the style guidelines.

Regardless, I'll typically brew my brown ales with both medium and dark crystal malts and a hodgepodge of roasted and specialty malts. I like a good malt base (usually MO) with a fair amount of caramel and light roast character. I found a mixture of medium (40L) and dark (120L) crystal malts gives a nice balance of flavor and combines especially well with smaller amounts of chocolate and brown malt. In fact, I find it quite strange that the vast majority of brown ales out there (porters too) don't include any brown or amber malts in their recipes - if there was ever a beer style where you want those types of flavors in a beer, brown ale is it. Moreover, I've also started adding a bit of wheat malt and/or flaked oats to some of my browns and really like what they do for the head retention and mouthfeel. As for hopping, I keep it simple with earthy UK hops such as Fuggles, occasionally using Northern Brewer in the hoppier versions. Willamette and Cascade can also be good choices. Lastly, I prefer characterful yeasts and generally stick with the English strains. Wyeast 1318 is a great choice along with the Fullers strain. I've also made some very good brown ales with Thames Valley II and even the Scottish ale yeast too.

I've spent the last couple of days designing a few different grain bills for a session-y brown ale and I think I've got one that looks good.

80% Pale, Maris Otter
8% Crystal 80L
5% Pale Chocolate
4% Flaked Oats
3% Brown Malt

O.G: 1.050, 25 IBU - Fuggles, 20 SRM, WY1968.

What do you think?


  1. I think your post and your recipe are spot on. I too have been in search of the right brown ale that is neither weak nor massive/hoppy/etc. Might have to run off and copy this one!

  2. It's funny that you mention that most recipes don't call for amber or brown malts. This weekend I am going to brew a brown ale from the Durden Park Beer Circle's "Old British Beers and How to Make Them"--recipe number 82, the 1812 Cobb & Co. Dark Amber Ale, which they describe as "a brown ale to die for."

    The grain bill is 94% pale amber malt and 6% brown malt (OG 1.076). The book has directions for slow roasting your own brown malt and diastatic pale amber malt from pale malt, which I did this weekend. My house smelled awesome.

    The batch size for the recipes in the book are for one (imperial) gallon and it calls for 2.25 ounces of fuggles, which should make for a VERY hoppy beer. It also says that the beer needs to mature 7-8 months, which will allow for the hop bitterness to mellow some. If I can wait that long to try it.

  3. That sounds like a great beer. Its been a while since I've dabbled in home malting, though I've long entertained the idea of making a batch of beer from 100% toasted pale malt. Let us know how it turns out.

    I really need to get back to making one gallon test batches. Even if it means breaking out the bottling wand...

    I think Turkey Day will be a brown ale brew day!

  4. The starter is going. But I will not be brewing just one gallon! If it is going to be awesome in 7 to 9 months, I'm gonna want more than that.


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