DRAFT PICKS: Wading through murky waters to define brown ale

Let’s discuss brown ale. I suppose I’ll wax a bit poetic this week since my favorite style of brewed beverage has got to be brown ale. The problem is ... as with most every kind of beer, brown ale ends up being a rather generic term that can describe a whole slew of ales. Simply put, there are good brown ales, and there are some pretty crummy brown ales. And then there are a bunch of ales marketed as brown ales simply because they are the color brown when poured. Hmmmmmm ... What’s a beer lover to do? Well, let’s keep it simple. In very general terms there are two main styles or linages of brown ales - English (or British) and American. Trying to nail down a definition of an English brown ale is pretty tough since there are a wide variety of the same throughout the British Isles. In short, though, English brown ales are noted for their red-tinted brown color. They are almost always what we are learning to call “malt forward” — with fine malts dominating the recipe. Their maltiness often carries a distinct nutty taste and background hints of fruitiness. English browns are generally rather mild in taste but at the same time are full-bodied in mouth-feel. Some English Browns tent to be a little sweeter (using less bittering agents e.g. hops) than do American ales. English Browns are very refreshing and usually fully delicious. Then we have the American brown ales. Brewers in the U.S. learned early on that brown ales held a lot of potential. They saw how popular the browns were in England and some parts of Europe, and they adopted and adapted the old recipes to the American palette. U.S. brewers took the English brown ale, created virtually the same brew using distinct American ingredients, and then juggled it around a bit by adding things like coffee beans, chocolate nibs, and various nuts - especially hazelnuts in some brews. Like it’s English cousins, the American browns are more often than not “malt forward.” (In fact, almost always so.) It should be pointed out that the brown ales we’re drinking today are a relatively new resurrection of traditional browns. These classic brews died out of popularity in the late 1800s when brewers stared focusing on lighter versions of the ale in order to increase both production and profit. The “new” brown ales began a struggle to renewed recognition just before the second World War, and only really re-earned their place on the bar over the past two or three decades. Even the popular Newcastle Brown Ale, which some might think has been around since Henry VIII was on the throne, has only actually been being served since the later 1920s. Both English and American brown ales are generally mild. Some are more full-bodied, others a bit more sweet. American browns are generally a bit drier than English or British brown ales - that is to say, they are most often less sweet and hinted with less caramel flavor and more of the other tones so common from well roasted malted grains. In fact, in some American brown ales there may be a hint of hops in the background — something usually missing in European versions. As such, there may be a touch more bitterness to American browns. Nevertheless, compared to other brews the hops are virtually non-existent. Good browns need to be chilled, but not COLD! No frozen glasses here ... please! Too cold and A) the brew loses all of its nuances and simply becomes a cold malt beverage, and B) this type of brew can become a bit cloudy if over chilled. That doesn’t ruin anything, but some folks may be a bit put off thinking the ale has “gone bad.” Chill brown ales, don’t “freeze” them. (This isn’t a slurpy, you know!) Some brown ales, (both English and America) for sale in this area include: Indian Brown Ale, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery; Hazelnut Brown Nectar, Rogue Ales; Frangelic Mountain Brown, Founders; Nut Brown Ale, Mt. Carmel Brewing Company; He’Brew Jewbelation, Shmaltz Brewing Company; Ellie’s Brown Ale, Avery Brewing Company; Brown Angel, Clown Shoes Brewing (Yes! That’s the name!), and Short’s Bellaire Brown. There are a lot of American style brown ales on the market, some 840 to be exact! Try them out. I’m sure you’ll find one or two you enjoy.


Ellie’s Brown Ale Avery Brewing Company Boulder, Colo.   I really, really like Ellie’s and have to admit that it is often my go-to American brown ale when I can’t get Moose Drool, (which is the Crees household standard.) Being number two in my book doesn’t mean there is anything at all lacking in this wonderful offering from Colorado. Ellie’s pours a deep, deep brown. In the right light, some might see this brew as black, but I measure all my beers by the same light so Ellie’s shows a touch lighter than in pub light. Whatever the case, this is a rich welcoming color. There is a good amount of head which I find didn’t linger too much. Take advantage of it while you can as a tool for discerning some of the more subtle scents. First sniff continues the welcome. Ellie’s has a mildly sweet aroma, with hints of outdoor nuttiness. There certainly is a heavy malt presence - as should be expected. Continued sniffing will reveal hidden hints of vanilla, and certainly tones of caramel or brown sugar. At first wash, the subtlety of the American Brown is so very well revealed. There is a lot there - but nothing outstanding or overly domineering. Instead, this is a rich mix of fine ingredients carefully blended. Some might mistake Ellie’s for a coffee or Java stout. Indeed, there are coffee hints, but not so demanding as in a stout. Ellie’s is a wonderful brew with great mouth feel. Not too hefty. (Some folks seem to think darker ales will be thick and syrupy. Not so!!) Not too carbonated or fizzy. This is a wonderful example of American Brown Ale. Certainly one of the best I’ve had, and especially recommended for those who are just starting out in the exploration side of the brewed beverage experience. Highly, highly recommended. Very nice with beef dishes of most sorts - including stews. Less exciting accompanying chicken dishes. For me, it just didn’t pair well (although I didn’t have it with good ol’ fried chicken). Excellent with the more pungent, soft cheeses. Enjoy.   Bellaire Brown Short's Brewing Company Bellaire Short’s continues to excite while at the same time managing to maintain a standard that can sometimes be tough in the world of brewing. I’ve been sipping Bellaire Brown for years and it has remained consistently good. In fact, the team in Bellaire claim this is one of their best selling brews amongst locals. That’s always a good recommendation. This is a fine example of American brown ale - dark brown with sparkles of deep red shooting out at you. A healthy pour produces a thick creamy head that is light to medium tan in color. The aroma is somewhat more subtle than one might expect from such an expressive brew, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is a certain outdoorsy base to Bellaire Brown — somewhat fitting its northern Michigan origins. It is most certainly malty up front — as well is should be. Slightly sweet to the nose. The roasted, almost toasted maltiness becomes ever so evident at first wash. Let this brew fill the mouth take a deep swallow, and then come back for a more analytical visit. There’s a lot of the deep, rich malt blend one would expect after sniffing this out. Caramel, hints of chocolate, even a touch of a fine homemade bread. You simply have to love the hidden tones and mysterious suggestions embodied in this brew. It is only moderately carbonated, so if your looking for a fizzy drink, this might not be your style. I love the more modest carbonation. There is less elimination of the basic tastes. Aggressive bubbling tends to clear the palette and wipe out background tastes. (That’s why some chefs offer soda water, or seltzer, between courses.) Bellaire Brown is upfront malty, but there is just a hint of the more floral hops lingering on the outer edges. Enough to be fun. In short (no pun intended), this is good stuff. Short’s has managed to produce and maintain a fine, business-like, no-fooling-around, ale in the style of the very best American browns. Good smell. Great taste, excellent mouth feel. Well worth the investment. As with most American browns, this will go very, very good with grilled or roasted meat dishes.