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January 13, 2009

Beer Magazine Anatomy Series–Brown Ale

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Written by: BeerMagDerek

Beer Anatomy–Brown Ale
Beer Known for its nuts
Words: Brad Ruppert

For the award winning pages of Beer Magazine Issue #6

As summer is rounding third and heading for home, fall is upon the horizon with its late harvest and many celebrations. So if those taste buds are eager to indulge in something other than the lawn-mower lager, welcome the changing of the season with something a bit sweeter. Often brewed with toffee, caramel, or nuts, the Brown Ale is the perfect toasting beer to kick off a season of tossing around the pigskin. That’s right, folks; football season is rapidly approaching, as are Oktoberfest and the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). So fire-up the John Deer, plow through your neighbor’s hedge on route to the corner liquor store, and throw down some shillings for Rogue’s Hazelnut Brown Nectar, Lost Coast’s Downtown Brown, or Newcastle Brown Ale.

If we were to take a peek back to the time well before the “good ol days,” prior to that “up-hill both ways” bullshit your granddaddy used to sell you and more along the lines of 100 years after the Reinheitsgebot (German purity law of 1516), we’d see England modifying the taste and appearance of their beer by experimenting with kilning their malt at higher temperatures. This “toasting” of their pale ale malt produced a more flavorful and robust burnished-gold beer with a smoky upfront aroma and a sweet aftertaste. During this era, brewers often crafted multiple batches of beer from the same grains by adding more water after the first batch was drained. This meant that the initial batch was usually the strongest, i.e. the stout, followed by a strong brown, and on down to the common brown ale which is similar to many Brown Ales of today.

Brewers continued to experiment with different ratios of pale, amber, and brown malts to conjure up a myriad of Porters, Brown Ales, Pale Ales, Stouts, and Mild Ales. While the Porter was considered the dominant beer of the time, many parts of England began to favor the Brown Ale. Brewers living in London seemed to have a greater interest in the dark-sugary low-alcohol beers like the Brown Ale, while those living in the Northeast favored the strong, sharp-flavored pale beers.

The Brown Ales survived for hundreds of years in England but only enjoyed an upsurge in America after the microbrewery boom. Brewers in the States took the basic principles of the Brown Ale and began tweaking them to their satisfaction. Like all things brought over to America, we want it bigger, bolder, and with more attitude. So we threw in more hops to make a hoppy Brown, or added more caramel to make a sweeter tasting Brown, or tossed in some hazelnuts to make it that much nuttier. Going for that sweeter angle opens the door to a wealth of ingredients that can be added to these beers that will only enhance an already great beer.

The Ingredients:
Similar to many a beer, the Brown Ale consists of primarily four basic ingredients: water, hops, barely, and yeast. The defining characteristic of this beer is its brownish-copper color and toasty yet sweet taste that can be attributed to the malts that are used. Unlike the IPA, which is known for its hops, or the Hefeweizen, which is characterized by its yeast, the Brown gets its backbone from the caramel and roasted malts that are added during the boil. Although hops are present in the Brown, rarely does any bitterness or aroma from the hops dominate the chocolaty toffee flavors and aroma.

Water: Considered the liquid of life, beer is something we cannot live without. Oh, actually I think it’s water that we need to survive… but fortunately beer is comprised of 90% water. So drink up, Johnny! It’s time to get healthy and replenish those much needed calories you spent floundering around your living room waving your Wii remote like a little girl swatting a fly. Or perhaps you’re killing calories by the 10s playing a little Guitar Hero, fantasizing that it’s 1987 and you’re in GnR, and breaking off a little Paradise City… Anyhooo, let’s talk water. Since the Brown Ale was founded in England, should can note that London’s agua has large amounts of carbonate and low levels of magnesium, sodium, and chloride. So wtf does that mean? Well, the carbonate actually helps remove any acids of the darker malts, which gives you a much smoother, creamier beer.

Yeast: This is the beer’s active ingredient; think of it as setting out to play PacMan on all the fermentable sugars. Unlike the yeasts used in Belgian or Hefeweizen beers, Brown Ale yeasts try not to play Goldilocks and therefore aren’t interested in sleeping in this guy’s bed or eating some bears’ porridge or leaving behind her underwear. These yeasts are much more subtle and may give rise to minor hints of butterscotch or slight fruity esters. English Ale yeasts are traditionally used when making Browns. One unique quality about yeasts is that they are usually brewery specific; breweries typically use the same strain all the time. This is one component that contributes to the variations among Brown Ales made by different breweries.

Barley: The primary malt is a pale ale which is then roasted, and chocolate or caramel malts are added to sweeten things up and add some character. These additional malts contribute to the beer’s appearance, mouthfeel, and aftertaste. The caramel malts provide that toffee and even nutty flavoring, while the chocolate malts give the beer its dark coloring and toasty coffee-like character.

Hops: Originally used as a preservative, hops became a defining taste and aroma characteristic of many American craft beers, especially of ales. The Brown Ale may be the exception to this because Brown Ales are known to possess more sweetness, as opposed to the bitterness provided by hops. Therefore as you can imagine, the hops used in Brown Ales are more subtle varieties like Fuggles or Goldings from England. Craft brewers of America have also been known to include Willamette or Nugget which, help to provide earth-like tones and modest aroma.

The Process
Making beer is actually quite easy. Step #1 – Get a blender and throw all four ingredients (hops, water, barley, and yeast) in the bottom; add some ice, set to frappe, and voila! You’ve got beer! Alright… well, perhaps it’s not that easy. To make a Brown Ale, you start by gathering your grains, mostly pale ale malt followed by some chocolate and caramel malt, and grind them up like you would coffee beans. Place these grains in a porous bin or sack and boil them in water for about 60 minutes, sort of like making tea. Every five minutes make sure to “teabag” your beer to enrich the flavor (this ain’t a term from either). Next add your Fuggles and Goldings hops to provide a little balance to your beer, and then start up a rolling boil for about an hour. Toward the end of the boil you can add some brown sugar or molasses to sweeten the beer should you choose. Finally you want to allow the beer to cool down, so you can transfer it to a fermenting tank and then add your yeast. Give it two weeks to ferment at room temperature and you’ll have beer! Almost. You’ll still need to carbonate it. You can do this by adding sugar to the beer just as you bottle it and then giving it seven days to build up some pressure. After that, it’s BOOZE IT TIME!

There are five different takes on the Brown Ale: Northern English, Southern English*, American, Dusseldorf-style Altbier*, and Belgian-style Flanders. The English-style Browns differ from each other in appearance, alcohol content, and sweetness. The south prefers the darker sweeter Brown, while the north favors beers with lighter color, heavier alcohol, and heavier bitterness. The American-style may resemble the English-styles in appearance, but that’s about it. We Americans took the English Brown and gave it some balls by beefing up the hoppiness, increasing the alcohol content, and intensifying the bitterness. The German-style or Dusseldorf-style Altbier* is also heavier hopped than the English but preserves a crisp, flavorful dry finish. The Flanders Belgian-style is not as hoppy as the German or American but is more notably recognized by its sour and sometimes spicy notes. This style has also been known to have a chill haze when served at lower temperatures.


The color of Brown Ale may vary from a dark chocolaty brown, to a light copper hue, to even a reddish-amber tint depending on the style of the Ale. The Southern English style tends to be a dark shadowed brown with a tan head, while the Northern is usually a dark see-through amber with a cream colored head. The American Brown can vary between a heavy toffee with tan head to a much darker opaque brown with off-white head. The Altbier and Flanders tend to be a dark reddish-brown that is still relatively clear with a white head.

The nose on most Brown Ales will usually have a toffee, caramel, or nutty signature with hints of light fruity aromas. The Dusseldorf and American-style will have a definite presence of hops aroma, but this should not overwhelm the toasty sweetness. The Flanders-style has been known to possess a slight sour aroma accompanied by fruity esters similar to cherries, dates, plums, or figs.

Brown Ale provides an upfront malty sweetness that leads into a toasty flavoring across the palate that is followed by a nutty, sweet aftertaste. Typically, a medium mouthfeel and moderate carbonation are components of this style. The Southern English-style tends to have more chocolate and toffee overtones, while the Northern holds to that crisp bitterness. The German and American-style Browns provide a hoppier experience with the latter really pushing the hop levels to the extreme. The Flanders has upfront toffee or caramel sensations, which are succeeded by raisin, plum, or even cherry aftertastes. A bit of sourness is often perceived in these Belgian-style Browns as well.

Pint glasses are usually wider at the top and narrower at the bottom, which can be both a benefit and a disadvantage. The wide top makes it easier to get your bottle in there to pour your beer and as noted above, gives the beer more room to breathe. The narrow bottom generates more carbonation when poured. While good head is important, you don’t want 80% foam and 20% beer. Take caution to tilt your pint glass at a 45° angle and pour about ¾ of your beer into your glass, then slowly bring it upright to maximize the aroma and appearance of your beer.

Glass: While some beers may actually have glasses named after them (Hefeweizen, Pilsner), the Brown Ale chose to set up shop in the traditional pint glass. Not to worry though; this full flavored beer gets to flex its muscles in one of the most commonly used forms of glassware found in just about every bar or restaurant around the world. There are a couple of different variants on the pint, including the U.S. tumbler or the 20oz English nonic. Both are well suited to display the dark chocolaty color of the Brown, with ample openings at the top to let your ale breathe. The glass is strong, robust, and made for quaffing.

Temperature: Ales are better served at warmer temperatures than most lagers. To add to this, the sweetness of the beer provides even greater flexibility of the range that would still be considered palatable. While all beer tastes great served ice cold, with a beer like this you want to take the time to enjoy the chocolaty sweetness or roasted toffee overtones and not just freeze your taste buds with a chilled liquid. The Brown Ale is perfectly served around 50-55°F, which is quite a bit warmer than your refrigerator. So if you’ve got a wine cellar under your house for storing your Trappist beers, this would be the right environment. If not, I’d suggest taking your Brown Ale out of the fridge and allowing it to adjust to room temperature for about 5-10 minutes before drinking. If you can’t wait that long, try making the Brown Ale your second beer and let it climatize while you’re quenching your thirst on the first.

Food Pairing
As the summer is on its way to cooling off, take advantage of late night BBQs by having the neighbors over, grilling up some hamburgers and brats, and breaking open some Goose Island Nut Brown Ale or Moose Drool Brown Ale from Montana. Hunting season is just around the corner, and Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale or Samuel Adams Brown Ale is the perfect compliment to venison. If you need some pre-game snacks, baked beans and cheeses like camembert, fontina, provolone, or aged cheddar go well with Tommyknocker Imperial Nut Brown Ale or Avery Ellie’s Brown Ale. Cornish game hen or potato salad pair well with Liefman’s Oud Bruin or Ichtegem Old Brown.

Common Brown Ales
Abita Turbo Dog
Acme California Brown Ale
Alameda Brickhouse Brown Ale
Alcatraz Birdman Brown
AleSmith Nautical Nut Brown Ale
Arcadia Nut Brown Ale
Avery Ellies Brown Ale
Barley Johns Flemish Sour Brown
Bear Creek Nut Brown
Bear Republic Pete Brown’s Tribute Ale
Beer Works Bean Town Nut Brown Ale
Belle Isle American Brown
Bells Best Brown Ale
Bend Maple Nut Brown
Big Horn Stibnite Brown Ale
Big Sky Moose Drool Brown Ale
Big Time Busters Brown Ale
Bluegrass Nut Brown Ale
Bonaventure Nut Brown Ale
Bootleg Toms Brown Ale
Breckenridge 471Mighty Brown
BridgePort Beertown Brown
Brooklyn Brown Ale
Brownings English Brown
Bull & Bush Big Ben Brown Ale
Bullfrog Blue Collar Brown
Capitol City English Brown
Central Coast Brown Ale
Coachs Downtown Brown
Columbus Nut Brown Ale
Dark Horse Boffo Brown Ale
Deschutes Buzzsaw Brown
Dicks Working Mans Brown Ale
Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale
Elevator Dirty Dicks Nut Brown Ale
Farmington River Brown Ale
Flyers Barnstormer Brown Ale
Four Peaks Leroy Brown
Free State Uptown Brown
Full Sail Nut Brown Ale
Goose Island Hex Nut Brown Ale
Great Basin Brown Ale
Green Flash Nut Brown Ale
Hakusekikan Brown Ale
Hales Irish Style Nut Brown Ale
Ironworks Brown Ale
Ithaca Nut Brown
John Harvards Newtowne Nut Brown Ale
Kodiak Island Sweet Georgia Brown
Lagunitas Brown Sugga
Left Hand Deep Cover Brown Ale
Liefman’s Goudenband
Liefman’s Odnar
Liefman’s Oud Bruin
Lost Coast Downtown Brown
Lucky Labrador Open Bridge Brown Ale
Magnolia Big Cypress Brown Ale
Mammoth Double Nut Brown Ale
Maui Hemp Man Brown Ale
McMenamins Sleepy Hollow Nut Brown
Midnight Sun Kodiak Brown Ale
Morro Bay Old Town Brown Ale
Narrow Gauge Harvest Brown Ale
New Holland Brown Ale
Newcastle Brown Ale
Oak Pond Nut Brown Ale
Olfabrikken Brown Ale
Oregon Trader Nutty Brown
Phantom Canyon Downtown Brown Ale
Pike Bootleg Brown
Pizza Port 101 Nut Brown Ale
Power House White River Brown Ale
Redhook Nut Brown Ale
River City Old Town Brown
Rock Bottom Dawg Pound Brown
Rogue HazelNut Brown Nectar
Saint Arnold Brown Ale
Samuel Adams Brown Ale
Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale
Saranac Brown Ale
Shipyard Brown Ale
Sierra Nevada Brown Ale
Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale
Snake River Buffalo Brown Ale
South Shore Nut Brown Ale
Spanish Peaks Nut Brown Ale
Sweetwater Sweet Georgia Brown
Tenaya Creek Nut Brown Ale
Thirsty Dog Nut Brown Ale
Thunder Canyon Numb Nut Brown Ale
Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale
Troegs Rugged Trail Nut Brown Ale
Walking Man Barefoot Brown
Walnut Brewery Old Elk Brown Ale
Wild Goose Nut Brown Ale
Wolavers Brown Ale

german-style brown ale        25-48    4.3-5.0%
american-style brown ale       20-40     4.3-7.0%
southern english brown ale    12-20    2.8-4.2%
northern english brown ale    20-30    4.2-5.4%
flanders brown ale      15-25    4.0-8.0%

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One Comment

  1. […] Brown Ale reviews Probably the most known Brown Ale and one of the ‘beginner’ beers is called Newcastle Brown Ale. It’s an English Brown Ale. There are two different types of English Brown Ales (northern and southern), Belgian Brown Ales and also American Brown Ales. If you want to read more about this specific style, here’s a good article. […]

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