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Oakes Weekly - September 22, 2005
Brown Ales revisited
September 22, 2005
Written by Oakes
So there are people who like brown ales, huh. Well, a couple anyway. Among those who professed an appreciation for this style a couple of comments stood out. The first was that brown ale did serve as a gateway beer. D’oh. Considering another theory of mine is that beers designed to be gateway beers are no gateway to beer appreciation at all, I should have noticed the potential that brown ale plays here. It may be a chicken and egg thing, though, and I’m not sure which side brown ale would fall on. I guess I feel that other styles could play the gateway role very well but brown ale when it does this, does so because it’s always there. Then again, I say this because I never feared the hop. I was born a beer lover so had no adjustment to make, no preconceived notions about what beer was or what beer should be. The only things that shocked me were my first barley wine and imperial stout. Bitterness? Not a problem. My gateway could be IPA as much as the next thing. (Mine was Guinness, for the record). Lambic was cool right away and I was orvalling the first time I had Orval. Sometimes, though, I forget that not everybody is like that and you need a relatively unassertive beer with a somewhat interesting flavour profile to start out.
So I prematurely dismissed that part of the equation. But I still feel that on the whole, brewers don’t try very hard with the brown ale. It’s not the beer they care about – Ølfabrikken aside – and it shows in the low number of truly distinctive brown ales out there. You can make one distinctive, and you don’t have to make it “American-style” to do so. But too often the brown isn’t distinctive. Usually it’s perfectly drinkable, but yeah, I find most of them are superfluous to the brewer’s lineup and the drinker’s rotation. Not for everybody, as has been pointed out, but by and large my theory still stands that the role of Brown Ale in the brewing world has largely been overstated.
Another question came up – what do I think of other “subtle” styles? Well, my thoughts on beers are pretty easy to look up of course, but I’ll summarize. I like session beers. I don’t drink a lot of imperial stout – OK it’s hard to find imperial stout in Canada – because I like session drinking as an act. I’m a drinker’s drinker so I want a beer or a string of beers that will carry me through an evening and keep me able to hold a conversation. That high test stuff tastes great, but makes me sleepy.
But there hasn’t been much, if any, discussion of the role of certain styles in the beer pantheon. The idea of beer as a singular entity made up of tiny parts that all work together to perform a grand social function hasn’t been explored all that much. And when it is explored, it tends to be done in one of two ways. It’s either done in terms of a specific context (ie. Beer and Food matching) or it’s done backwards by trying to shoehorn every existing style into some form of role.
Let’s start with Mild, cousin to Brown Ale. Mild’s role is as juxtaposition to Bitter, simply put. They both offer the ultimate session mix of complexity, variety and low strength in a pint-sized package. One just happens to have more of a dark malt focus. There is a point, probably around pre-2003 McMullen’s AK or Banks Original where the two styles meet. The flavour profile of mild is more varied than that of brown ale. Combined with a lower alcohol, it fills the session role much more effectively than does brown. (Yes, there’s a lot of boring mild but unlike with Brown Ale, there are a lot of excellent, distinctive milds on the market and it is a major part of many brewer’s lineups and the drink of choice for a large number of drinkers). 60/-? That’s mild, brewed in Scotland.
The Germans do the session thing pretty well. Their best work is the north German Pilsner. I’m always amazed at how many people don’t like this style, but I drink it a lot. Bitburger, Jever, Moravia, Wernesgruner, König, yeah hook me up. It’s not at all a subtle style, and even bland examples have a fair amount of hop character. It’s not Cascades, so maybe the lack of forthright assertiveness throws people, but unlike the English varieties, the German hops can carry a beer. In this style, they do. The closest beer kin is the PNW IPA, all pale malt and copious hops. It’s a beer that doesn’t have a role for most people, who either prefer the fat maltiness of Czech pilsners or would go straight for that IPA, but I’m a big fan of north German pils. The so-called “continental pils”, now that’s a useless (sub)style.
Kölsch is a toughie…it doesn’t have a grand place in the beer pantheon but has carved a niche as a local beer. I like it when it’s well made, and authentic in character. That’s rare, outside Köln. To me, it’s another regional variant of golden ale, which I could take or leave. It plays the same role as a north German pils I think, but the reason it hasn’t spread is that nobody really needs it. That’s my theory, anyway.
Now Dortmunder, that’s good stuff. To suggest that Dortmunder isn’t assertive is not especially accurate. Dortmunder has the most assertive pale malt character of any beer style. Dark malts have all sorts of styles dedicated to them, but look at the flavour profile of pale beers. Adjuncts (pale lager), hops (British golden ale, pilsner), esters (wheats), acids (gueuze, Berliner weisse), yeast and hops (saison, tripel)…pale beer styles dedicated to malt just aren’t out there. Helles is to some extent but Dortmunder takes the theme just a little bit further (on average, anyway). And unlike maibock, it does it at the session level. Dortmunder has a fairly unique niche and is the most assertive beer in that niche.
There’s a lot to be said for beers that aren’t big, bold and brash. Most of them have a place. Maybe I could have written about the pointlessness of Amber Ale. It’s just as useless as Brown Ale. Maybe, given what people have written in Brown Ale’s defense, even more useless. But maybe I didn’t want to pick on an easy target. The vast majority of premium lagers, pale lagers, amber ales are all mailed-in me-too beers that would not be missed if they were to disappear tomorrow. But that isn’t news. Most people in the beer world know that already. Brown Ale is the one whose reputation is greater than its contribution. I think it’s fair to say, even though I like drinking them once in a while, that the same could be said for Kölsch as well.
Not everyone agrees with my assessment, and that’s fair enough. I just would rather see brewers get a little more creative, either with their browns or with their lineups. A beer isn’t a checklist of required styles, it should reflect the character of the brewery. Brown Ale should be there only when demand warrants it and the brewer has enough passion for it to make it distinctive. That’s what I’m saying.
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The idea of beer as a singular entity made up of tiny parts that all work together to perform a grand social function hasn’t been explored all that much.
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