Partly because of the generic words that make up the name of this style and partly due to the fact that this style is just so very old, it is impossible to exactly describe its lineage. The modern brown ale style most commonly brewed has its roots in English brewing tradition. Brewers in London, England, first used the term “brown ale” in the late 17th century. Back then, brown ales varied in alcohol strength, were lightly hopped, and brewed mostly from brown malt. As more and more brewers opted to use cheaper and more readily available pale malts as a base, brown ales lost their luster in the 18th century. The term “brown ale” resurfaced in the late 19th century with the production of Manns Brown Ale in England. With its release in 1925, Newcastle Brown Ale set the stage for the success and future popularity of the style. In 1986, American craft beer pioneers, Pete Slosberg and Mark Bronder, released Pete’s Wicked Ale—the beer largely responsible for establishing the American brown ale as a commercial beer style and category for beer competitions.
Since the 80’s, innovation has prevailed, giving way to many new and different twists on the old school brown ale recipe. According to the Brewers Association (BA), there are five styles of beer with the word “brown” in the title, and several more that fall into the brown color spectrum such as a “Mild”. From dark-brown ales from the south of England, to reddish-brown ales from the northeast of England, and even the slightly sour, brown beers of Belgium. The five styles listed are, English style brown ale, Brown porter, Belgian style Flanders, German style brown ale, and American style brown ale. All are a moderate strength dark ale lacking the heavily roasted flavors of stouts and some porters.
English-style brown ales are copper to brown in color. A medium body which ranges from dry to sweet in maltiness, and moderate English hop flavors or aromas. It will hold a 4.2-5.4% ABV with 20-30 IBUs.
Brown Porters are medium to dark brown (may even have a red hue) in color. Light- to medium-bodied, low to medium malt sweetness with caramel and chocolate notes, and medium hop bitterness. It should hold a 3.5-4.7% ABV.
Belgian-style Flanders are light to medium bodied, and deep copper to brown in color. Characterized by a slight to strong sourness due to the aging process in oak foeders. Typically aged for a minimum of 2 years, and then blended with “young” ale. A low to medium bitterness, and a cocoa-like character from roast malt. Oak-like or woody characters may be pleasantly integrated into overall palate with 3.8-5.2% ABV.
German-style brown ales are copper to brown in color. Medium body, malty flavor, and hop characters may be low to medium in flavor and aroma. It should drink with 3.6-4.4% ABV.
American-style brown ales, similar to their English counterpart except a higher ABV and a stronger bitterness (which tends to be the pattern with anything that is “American-style”), are deep copper to brown in color. Malt dominated with caramel-like and chocolate-like characters. Low to medium hop flavor, and bitterness. Aromas and flavors of toast, caramel, nuts, and chocolate, with a medium body. It should have 4.3-6.2% ABV in the glass with 20-30 IBUs.
One characteristic, however, should remain true for all well brewed brown ales across that range – a strong malty center. Brown ales are a celebration of malt, liquid bread if you will, with common flavors such as caramel, toffee, biscuits, nuttiness, and coffee. The yeast used to ferment brown ales is usually an English ale variety that adds traces of fruity flavors and aromas such as plums, raisins or ripe apples. Hops are often palpable in the Northern styles as well as most of the American brewed browns but should never dominate. The mouthfeel of most brown ales ranges from medium to light with a moderate amount of carbonation.
Some examples worth checking out would be, Ellie’s Brown by Avery Brewing (American style brown ale), India Brown Ale by Dogfish Head (American style brown ale), Harvey’s Nut Brown Ale (English style brown ale), Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale by Cigar City Brewing (English style brown ale), Old Brown Dog Ale by Smuttynose Brewing Co. (American style brown ale), Little Red Cap by Grimm Brothers Brewhouse (German style brown ale), Schlafly Oud Bruin by The St. Louis Brewery/Schlafly Beer (Belgian style Flanders brown ale), Lips of Faith La Folie by New Belgium Brewing Co. (Belgian style Flanders brown ale), Tamerlane Brown Porter by Black Raven Brewing Co., or Chocolate Porter by Bayhawk Ales Inc. (Brown porter).