Brown is the new black

Brown ales round out fall seasonals

By Kevin J. Gray

Photo: Ellie’s Brown Ale from Avery Brewing Company is a popular American version of the brown ale style

Cooler weather means changes on local beer shelves, including an influx of pumpkin-spiced beers, fresh- and wet-hopped beers and other seasonals (at least until the winter beers take over). But for this beer geek, fall means savoring one of the most unappreciated styles—the humble brown ale. Although brown ales are made year round, there’s something about their subtle hints of chocolate and roast that pair well with a fall afternoon.

British lineage

Brown ales trace their roots to 18th century England, before the advent of pale malt. At the time, all English ales were made from dark malt and were brown in color. Most would more closely align with what we think of as porters and stouts, not today’s brown ales. When brewers started incorporating black patent malt, the two styles began to diverge. Porters, and brown ales in general, dropped off late in the century, when cheaper pale malts could be used as base malts. In came the pale ales; out went the brown ales.

It wasn’t until nearly 100 years later, in 1902, that the English brewer Thomas Wells Thorpe created Manns Brown Ale, reintroducing the brown ale to England. It was a bottled beer, advertised as “the sweetest beer in London,” and it was popular. Yet, it was never as popular as the brown ale that introduced America to the style. Credit for that goes to one of today’s most ubiquitous versions of the style. In 1927, the rather ironically named Colonel Jim Porter released Newcastle Brown Ale in Scotland. Over the next several decades, the brand became synonymous with U.K. beers. By the 1990s, it was the most widely distributed beer in that country.

Enter the Americans

Although the style is decidedly British in origin, the American craft beer revolution adopted it as one of its early favorites. Those old enough to remember Pete’s Wicked Ale tasted an early American iteration. Like most “across the pond” adaptations, the American version is bigger. Not only are American versions higher in alcohol, but they also pack a heartier hop punch. The Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guide (BJCP for short—the organization that writes style guides for homebrewers) notes that American Brown Ales clock in between 4.3-6.2 percent ABV, with IBUs of 20-40. British versions are designated by geography as either Southern or Northern Browns. Northern English Browns are the more robust and more common of the two. They range from from 4.2-5.4 percent ABV, with only 20-30 IBUs.

What to expect

Brown ales are, by definition, brown in color, sometimes nearly opaque. The coloring stems from dark malts used in the brewing process. In the nose, expect toffee and caramel notes. Often there are hints of nuts, which is why brown ales are sometimes referred to as nut browns. The nutty character most likely comes from the malts, though some brewers do add nut flavors to their recipes. American versions may also have hints of chocolate, again from the dark malts. This is a malty style, so hop presence in the aroma should be low (compared to pale ales), even in American styles.

When sipping a brown ale, look for many of the same flavors as in the nose. These beers are moderately sweet, with more hop bitterness in American versions. Expect toffee, chocolate and a slight biscuit bite. Carbonation is moderate, and the flavor lingers like sunlight on a fall afternoon.

Find your own

Although underappreciated, the style is easy to find. Start first with English versions. Newcastle Brown Ale will be the easiest to find, although many claim that the Newcastle of old is nothing like the version now owned and brewed by Heineken. For a more authentic brown ale, try Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale. The Old Brewery, located in Yorkshire, England, still draws water 85 feet underground from a well sunk in 1758. The beers are brewed in fermentation vessels made from solid slate. The traditional methods translate into a beer that represents the style well.

American versions are also readily available. Smuttynose’s Old Brown Dog Ale, brewed in New Hampshire, is bigger and hoppier than the English versions. Avery Ellie’s Brown Ale, named after the brewer’s late chocolate lab, is rich and sweet, with chocolate and biscuit notes.

Want to try a local iteration? Fifth Street Brewpub’s Senorita Ramona Brown offers a coffee-infused variation on the style. This fall, Toxic Brew Company has released two brown ales. Neighbor’s Gift is an imperial version of the style, while Box Troll Brown Ale is a more traditional take. Last but certainly not least, Yellow Springs Brewery makes two versions—Handsome and Smokin’ Handsome Brown Ales. The smoked version was the Miami Valley’s first medal win at the Great American Beer Festival when, in 2013, Yellow Springs Brewery took home silver.

Kevin J. Gray is Dayton City Paper’s Resident Beer Geek. A firm believer in all things balanced, when Kevin isn’t drinking craft beer, he’s hiking or biking to keep his beer belly in optimal shape. Reach Kevin J. Gray at

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