This week’s Know Your Styles is being brought to you by John Steckert (vyvvy on the forums). Without any hyperbole, John is probably one of the most knowledgeable beer guys in St. Louis, so I’m excited he helped out with this series! Thanks again to Paul from the Wine and Cheese Place in Clayton for supplying the beers for this feature. Also, if you’re interested in writing a Know Your Styles article, feel free to email me.
Northern English Brown Ale
The brown ales we have today have their roots with English Mild Ales. The mild ales were quite popular as a harvest time drink and were used to refresh the manual workers in London. While the mild ales are relatively low in alcohol, the reason for the name is the low amount of hop bitterness imparted by the beer. The color of the mild ales varied with some being quite pale in color to being as dark as a porter.
In the 1920s brown ale style were derived from the dark mild ales and there were two styles that were mainly separated by region – Southern English and Northern English.
Southern English Brown Ales were quite mild in alcohol content and significantly darker than the Northern English Brown Ales. The dark brown coloring many times has to do with caramel or black invert sugar being used to give it the darker color. Most of the Southern variety is very dark and almost opaque and has quite a sweet palate. And like the milds that it came from, the hop presence and alcohol content is very light. The popularity of this style has declined significantly and will likely never be written up here on “know your styles” if for no other reason, that there are few, if any, examples of this in the area.
Northern English Brown Ales are generally medium gravity and alcohol content (4.2%-5.4%). While there is some sweetness this is an all malt beer with no additives like its Southern version. The Northern English Brown Ales also have more of a hop presence than Milds or Southern Browns. This style has risen considerable in popularity.
One of the earliest versions is still one of the most popular brown ales today, Newcastle. The Newcastle Brewery was a merger of several local beer makers and was created in 1890. The Newcastle Brown Ale was created Colonel Porter (ironic name for the beer created) over a three year span and was introduced in 1927. It began winning awards the following year and over 80 years later is the most popular brown ale in the world.
The Northern English Brown Ales I sampled for this were Newcastle, Samuel Smith Nut Brown, Wychwood Hobgoblin for the English versions and Avery Ellie’s Brown Ale and Lost Coast Downtown Brown for American takes on the style.
What you should be seeing
Northern English Browns are clear dark amber to reddish brown with a head that is somewhere between off-white to light tan. All of the beers sample for this looked almost identical on their pours – very dark brown with a reddish tint and a light tan head. The only one that looked a bit different was the Sam Smith since it was a bit darker than the rest.
What you should be smelling
The aroma should be malty with some nuttiness and possibly some caramel or toffee. There should be some light sweetness, it may have some light hop notes, light fruity esters and little to no diacetyl. The aromas of the beers sampled had some differences. The Newcastle had toasted malt, biscuit, caramel and a hint of diacetyl. Sam Smith’s was very nutty, heavier breadiness and moderate sweetness. The Hobgoblin was very nutty, very sweet and lots of dough and toffee. None of the three English versions had any hops of mention. The US versions both had toastier malt, lighter on the nuttiness and some hop presence.
What you should be tasting
There should be gentle to moderate malt sweetness with a nutty, light caramel character. There can best toasted, biscuit or toffee-like character. The bitterness level should be medium to medium-low. The hop flavor can be light, but none noticeable is also acceptable. Fruity esters can be present and well as low diaceytl. The finish should be medium-dry to dry. All of the examples I had displayed some nutty flavors along with toasted malt. The Hobgoblin was by far the sweetest of the bunch, while Avery was the driest and toastiest along with the hoppiest of the bunch. Sam Smith displayed the ester like aspects more than the others. The only one that I detected any diacetyl was in Newcastle, but it was very light.
How you should be drinking
Most traditional glassware will work just fine for Northern English Brown Ales. I’ve found recommendations for dimpled mugs, but since I didn’t have any of those I used a simple handled pint glass. Shaker pints and imperial pint glasses work fine for the style as well. Brown ales pair well with many meat dishes as well as smoked fish and heartier salads.
What you should be buying
While Newcastle has probably been on about everyone’s list at some point other examples of other English versions available are Wychwood Hobgoblin, Sam Smith Nut Brown Ale and Riggwelter Yorkshire Ale. We also have many US examples available of this English style including Bell’s Best Brown, Avery Ellie’s Brown Ale, Goose Island Nut Brown Ale, Lost Coast’s Downtown Brown, Bear Republic Pete’s Brown Ale, Wolaver Brown Ale, Arcadia Nut Brown, Barley Island’s Dirty Helen and many others.
Milds, Southern English Browns, American Brown Ales