I think of English Brown Ale as the comfort food of beer, the mac-and-cheese, if you will — a meal unto itself. You’d think this stalwart ale would be omnipresent, but current circumstances have made it an elusive brew.
The excess of craft breweries in the market, nearly all of them striving to stand out with novelty beers, seems to have spurred a quest for the most undrinkable un-beer. Brewers hustling for the new and experimental tend to look down on traditional beer styles as either something quaint or, worse, something to be improved upon.
Thus the American Brown Ale was born. I first encountered this mutant brown last spring, and gamely gave it a try. It was the Bangor Brown,by Geaghan Brothers Brewing Co. You can imagine my surprise when, expecting a comfort brew, I was assaulted with enough hoppy bitterness to scrape the barnacles off a boat. When ordering a brown ale these days, best ask if it’s American or English. Lesson learned.
In search of real browns, I hit the two Portland bars with the widest selection of beer. The Great Lost Bear had only one brown ale on their roster of over 80 taps, and it too failed the test. Burnside Brown Ale, from Portland’s Foundation Brewing Company, is not a brown ale. Their use of a coffee malt brought it into the realm of a porter. It was an OK porter, if you like coffee. [Update: The Bear no longer pours Burnside and, as of press time, offers no brown ales on tap.]
This brings up a nerdy beer point. Brown ales achieve their character mainly through kilned malts and/or crystal malts, which go through a different process than the roasted malts typically used to flavor porters and stouts. Randy Mosher, a highly regarded home-brewing author, has great charts on malt styles that illustrate this nit-pick of mine.
Novare Res Bier Cafe had three brown ales on their phone-book-like beer list. I ordered one from the “bottles” menu that arrived in a can. Granola Brown Ale,by Black Hog Brewing Co. (Oxford, CT), also failed my brown test. It was too dark and toasty to be called a brown, though still a tasty weak-stout with a bit of a chalky mouthfeel, if that’s your thing.
Thunder Hole Ale,by Atlantic Brewing Company (Bar Harbor), and Old Brown Dog,by Smuttynose Brewing Company (Hampton, NH), were both passable English Browns. Smutty’s, as I expected, had a slightly higher hop profile, and its 6.7% ABV is on the high end for a brown, but still in the comfort zone. Thunder Hole, a nut brown, was the darker of the two, with a nice, medium body and tawny color. That said, their use of chocolate malt, in addition to pale and crystal varieties, brings it perilously close to being a porter.
I wanted to have another taste of Geary’s Brown Ale, which they promised me would be in stores by mid September, but it failed to materialize before deadline late last month. Geary’s Brown has been my local go-to, and I hope it shows up soon.
Gritty McDuffs’ Best Brown has reliably been on tap for decades, but, at least these days, it lacks the signature malty sweetness of a great brown ale and has more of a hop finish, though nowhere near the hoppiness of the aforementioned American Brown Ale.
The gold standard for English Browns, Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, is available in bottles at Novare (and RSVP, on Forest Ave.). I had one tonight, at the preferred cellar temperature, and its full body warmed my soul.
Speaking of imports, I was surprised not to find the once best-selling brown ale of all, Newcastle, at any of the dozen-plus Greater Portland stores and bars I visited last month. Granted, it’s no great loss. The brewery was bought by Heineken in 2008, and the ale is now brewed in the U.S., with a new recipe, by Lagunitas Brewing, which is also owned by Heineken. By all accounts, the new Newcastle sucks.
The only downside to brown ales is that their fullness and rich flavor doesn’t abide well with most foods. Still, thinking seasonally, a slice of pumpkin pie is a perfect complement to an English Brown. Give it a try! Skip the “pumpkin” ales that sprout like weeds this time of year and enjoy the essences of gourd and beer separately, as God intended.