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Oakes Weekly - September 15, 2005
Brown Ale - I Don’t Get It
September 15, 2005
Written by Oakes
One thing I keep track of in my database of beers tasted is how many of each style I taste each year. In the late ‘90s, Brown Ale was one of the most-tasted styles. This dropped off when I lived in Toronto, only to enjoy a major comeback this year back in Vancouver. Brewers out here – be they north of the border or south – love including this style in their lineups. God knows why.
I sure didn’t miss them. The topic of the most useless beer styles has come up before, and I usually chip in with kristalweizen. Don’t get me started on kristalweizen. But I have to wonder about Brown Ale. And I do mean Brown Ale, not brown ale. There’s lots of good ale that’s brown. Very little of it is Brown Ale. It’s the brown ale for those who don’t like brown ale. The brown ale for those who don’t like dubbel, old ale, mild, Flemish sour browns, abt, or other distinctive brown beers like dunkel or bock or rauchbier.
My average rating for the style is low, but many other styles are lower. So what gives? Well, some of those other styles have terrible examples. Brown ale doesn’t really do terrible. Well, except for Newcastle. It just doesn’t do great either. A quick search of the top brown ales by rating turns up several that appear to be well thought-of, worth drinking even. But great? Some say Rogue’s, but that’s a flavoured beer. Sam Smith’s? Yeah, I do like that one. Some of the more robust American-style browns work for me too, but they actually have a compelling juxtaposition. Any English-style ones, ie most of them, don’t have that. It’s a style populated almost exclusively with boring, me-too examples.
But who drinks them? You have mild, a light form of brown ale that when done right brings all kinds of wonderful dark malt flavours to the mix. This compares evenly with brown ale, except that the low gravity forces many mild brewers to try extra hard to get as much from as little as possible. It’s a challenge and good brewers rise to it. Brown ale brewers don’t seem to feel the need to do this. Plus, mild is low alcohol, so those flavours are in session format. This beats brown ale, which sits on neutral ground. Strong beer lovers looking for these flavours have a multitude of options, from old ale to doppelbock. In profile it mainly compares with Dunkel, but I’ll go into this in more detail later.
Brown ale is unassertive, so of no particular value to much of the craft beer community. While I can respect the craftsmanship of a really well-balanced but light craft beer, I don’t grasp why you’d want a light craft beer. It could be argued that some craft beer must exist at the blander end of the scale as an easy introduction for cowardly macro drinkers. Setting aside the question of “why bother trying to win over cowardly macro drinkers?”, these people already have a plethora of blonde ales, cream ales, premium lagers, American wheats and amber ales to fill that niche. Dark stuff? Mild if you’re in England, Guinness anywhere else and let’s face it, a cowardly macro drinker thinks an American Dark is plenty dark, thank you very much.
Fans of bolder beers, of course, can get those in a moderate-strength format with a porter or stout. Or a dunkel. As brown ales tend to be amongst the cleanest of their breed, it seems that the biggest difference between a brown ale and a dunkel is boldness. Yes, there are a lot of dunkels that aren’t bold – in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe mainly. You can see those at the bottom of my dunkel list, dragging down the average. But take those away, and dunkels do well with me. They stand up for themselves. And unlike brown ales, they play a vital role in their breweries’ ranges.
You see, the dunkel is a Central European phenomenon and plays foil to the pilsners of the region. A lot of the breweries that make it use it as a one-two punch with their flagship pale lager, or a one-two-three with their hefeweizen as well. I can’t think of very many brewers for whom brown ale plays a similar role. Newcastle obviously is one example, and I suspect Sam Smith’s would be another. But how many other breweries out there feature brown ale as their flagship? How about their #2? #3? This is still a short list. A brewpub even in a timid area will see people coming in the door specifically for their stout or IPA, and a lot of folks reaching for the training wheel beer. Do training wheel-type customers get the brown? Does the brown ale have the same following as the IPA, the stout and the strong beers do?
Am I right? Does Brown Ale come off like a third-string quarterback – functional but not going to take you to the very far in the playoffs? Or are there a people out there who do have a passion for Brown Ale?
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There’s lots of good ale that’s brown. Very little of it is Brown Ale. It’s the brown ale for those who don’t like brown ale.
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