It is appropriate, when considering the origins and influence of brown ale, to note that the city of Newcastle lays claim – however verifiable it may be – to being the first city in England to brew beer. Of course, at that point the city would have been known by its Roman name – Pons Aelius, but the claim nonetheless exists that it is indeed the home of the first English beer.
We’ll likely never know if the beer those Roman Britons brewed tasted anything like today’s Newcastle Brown Ale, but what we do know is that the city’s eponymous brew has become the most identifiable brand of the style – but what of other brown ales? We spoke with Sam Wynne, Beer Director for The Flying Saucer and Meddlesome Moth (and a certified Cicerone, to boot) about the characteristics and varieties of this venerable style of beer, and what some of his favorites are.
Thanks for joining us, Sam. What exactly is a brown ale?
Well, brown ales are, historically, are like a lot of the English styles of beer; back before there were porters and stouts and before there was a definition of a brown ale, a lot of beer was pretty much just called brown ale. Malts, at the time, weren’t roasted in the modern kilns; they were roasted over a fire. And brown malt was kind of a catch-all for dark malt because the technique hadn’t been isolated to making specific types. Now we have things like black patent and roasted barley and all these different special, perfect levels of the roast on them and they don’t have the smokey characters coming from the wood, because they’re just heated up by heating elements. In fact, it was the later development of porter and stout that made the brown ale go away almost completely for a very long time.
Anyway, there are two traditional styles of brown ale: there’s the Northern English style and then there’s the Southern English style brown ale. The Northern English style is along the lines of Newcastle; and the brown ale that most people will attribute with being a brown ale. Likewise, anything that’s called a nut brown is generally a North English brown ale. The Southern brown ale is sweeter; it’s almost a darker, milder and lighter milk stout.
So most American brown ales follow in one of those two styles?
Well, there’s a third – the English styles are more traditional, whereas the most recent developed one is the American Brown Ale, which, in some circles, you’ll hear called the Texas Brown Ale. It was a style that was thought to be created during the modern home brew movement – you know, back just thirty years ago or so. So the American Brown Ale is, as you might imagine, characterized by bigger, hoppier, bolder flavors.
What makes a brown ale unique from a taste perspective?
Take this beer I’m drinking right now – this is Real Ale Blue House brown from Blanco, Texas. I think it’s a really nice version of the brown ale. It’s definitely of the northern variety; picking up a lot of those nutty characteristics, and one of the things I really appreciate about it is they didn’t blow it out with hops. I think in many cases, American Brown Ale – the Texas Brown Ale – is getting too far away from what a brown ale really tries to be. With this one, though, you’re getting a little bit of sweetness, a lot of toastiness and roastiness and then there’s an unmistakable nutty characteristic that really helps to round out the sweetness. You know – when you’re eating nuts they’re kind of sweet too, but not in a candy sort of way.
So would it be a safe guess that the styles of Brown Ale today are at least somewhat reminiscent of what they were centuries ago?
You know, that’s a hard thing for us to say right now, obviously, not being able to actually drink the old ones. But just from the logical method of the use, and if we take the methods that have been documented from back in those days, as far as the production goes, if you recreate those circumstances now, you definitely get a smokier malt that produces a smokier beer. It’s thought to have been that all the Old World dark beers at least had some level of smokiness to them. Today, a smoked porter might actually be a little closer to what they used to be when they were using those methods.
What foods would you pair with a brown ale?
Something as simple as a well dressed hamburger goes really nicely with brown ale. The smokiness of the meat links in with that roasted nuttiness of the beer, and then that sweetness from the tomatoes can connect to the sweeter side. And I’m thinking a nice, bold cheese on there too, to help distinguish the two – if you’re pairing two things side by side that are too similar, they really just get muddled and you lose the pairing, so some good, sharp cheese or sharp cheddar, maybe some funky blue or something like that, would be a good way to create some contrast there.
If you were recommending a brown ale to someone, which way would you steer them?
Real Ale Brew House Brown is one of my favorites, and any time you can support a local beer it’s a great thing. I’d say from the Old World, Samuel Smith Nut Brown is personally my favorite of the English brown ales. I don’t think Newcastle really packs the same punch that the Samuel Smith does. Rouge Hazelnut Brown is a cool flavored brown ale – there’s some very, very strong hazelnut flavors going on there.
Thanks for the time, Sam. Time to start the practical aspect of the interview and taste a few of these?