What Is Brown Ale? All the Answers Here!

We tell you exactly what brown ale is, why it's called brown ale and some history behind this popular type of beer.

BEER

Brewpedia

9/19/202310 min read

Brown ale on a table in front of a foreplace
Brown ale on a table in front of a foreplace

A Guide to Brown Ales: History, Styles, Best Brews and Tasting Notes

Quick Answer: Brown ale is a distinct type of beer characterised by its amber to dark brown colour and often has a mildly sweet taste. Originating from England, this style of beer is known for its malty flavour profile and can occasionally have hints of caramel, chocolate, or nuts.

While there are variations depending on the region, the two most notable types include English brown ales, which tend to be sweeter, and American brown ales, which can have a hoppier flavour. Overall, brown ale is enjoyed by many for its richness and depth, offering a middle ground between lighter beers and darker stouts or porters.

Brown ales represent a broad category encompassing different beer styles united by their characteristic deep amber to brown colours. Ranging from dry English versions to sweeter American takes, brown ales offer rich malty flavours in medium-bodied brews.

In this in-depth guide, we’ll explore the history, styles, tasting notes, and some of the best commercial examples to try of these underrated ales.

Whether you’re looking to sample your first brown ale or want to enhance your beer knowledge, read on to become a brown ale expert!

What are Brown Ales?

Brown ales get their name from their signature colour, with hues ranging from deep copper to chocolate brown. They are ales made with malts roasted to different degrees to achieve their distinctive brownish tones.

The History and Origins of Brown Ales

Brown ales trace their lineage to the early days of English brewing. As the use of brown malt became popular in the 17th century, browns emerged as a style.

In the 1800s, English brewers produced quick-maturing browns known as “mild ales” to meet the growing demand for bottled beer with a longer shelf life. These drinkable session browns quenched the thirst of industrial labourers.

Over time, brown ale evolved into its own distinct category. Today, English and American browns focus more on rich malt complexity while retaining the easy-drinking nature of those early milds.

Key Characteristics and Flavour Profile of Brown Ales

While diverse, brown ales tend to share some core characteristics:

  • Colour - Any shade from reddish copper to chocolate brown derived from kilned or roasted malts. Never black like a stout.

  • Clarity - Most are clear rather than hazy, ranging from brilliant to somewhat opaque.

  • ABV - Spans a wide range, typically between 4%-6.5%. Most are of moderate strength.

  • IBUs - Low to moderate bitterness around 15-25 IBUs provides malt balance.

  • Aroma - Malty, nutty, toasty, caramel, cocoa and coffee notes with subtle hoppiness.

  • Flavour - Malt forward with complexity from roasted grains. Hop flavour subdued. Balanced finish.

  • Body - Medium, never thin. Smooth, silky mouthfeel. Low to moderate carbonation.

  • Key Ingredients - Base of pale malt with specialty kilned brown malts, and English hops.

While varied, maltiness remains the core theme across all brown ale iterations. Hops take a backseat to the malt flavours.

Difference Between Brown Ale, Porter and Stout

Brown ales are sometimes confused with their darker cousins, porters and stouts. While linked by their colour, key differences exist:

Brown Ale

  • Amber to brown, never black

  • Malt-focused with roasted complexity

  • Low to moderate bitterness

  • Medium body with crisp finish

Porter

  • Very dark brown to black

  • Roasted malt flavours like coffee and chocolate

  • Medium bitterness

  • Medium to full body with creamy mouthfeel

Stout

  • Jet black colour

  • Heavy roasted barley dominates with burnt, acrid notes

  • Very low bitterness

  • Very full-bodied and creamy

So in summary, brown ales are the lightest and crispest of the trio, with porters more biting and stouts intensely roasty and thick.

Main Types and Styles of Brown Ale

While brown ales contain certain unifying traits, several distinct styles also exist:

English Brown Ale

The classic version, with origins tracing to early English milds. English brown ales tend to showcase malty goodness with chocolate, caramel, toffee, and nutty flavours. Examples include Newcastle Brown Ale and London Brown Ale.

American Brown Ale

The New World spin, with more pronounced late hopping and roasted notes. Tend to be drier, richer, and hoppier than English counterparts. Pete's Wicked Ale pioneered this hoppier style.

Belgian Brown Ale

Featuring fruity Belgian yeast esters and sweetness to balance maltiness. Shows raisin, plum, or dried fruit flavours. Examples include Leffe Brown.

Imperial Brown Ale

Amped up American browns that push the style to higher alcohol levels around 7%-9% ABV. Expect intense maltiness with assertive hops.

These main variants provide insight into the diversity of brown ales available today. Certain examples may cross stylistic boundaries, keeping things interesting for beer lovers.

Best Brown Ales to Try

Here is a selection of highly recommended brown ales to explore from top breweries:

Newcastle Brown Ale

The quintessential English brown ale from its namesake city in Northern England. Features a bright copper colour, medium body, nutty and caramel malts, and subtle fruit esters. The classic gateway into brown ales.

Brooklyn Brown Ale

A benchmark for the American brown style. Deep russet-brown hue with piney, citrus hops complementing chocolate and roasted grains. Strikes a perfect balance between hops and malts.

Pete's Wicked Ale

The original American brown ale that started the trend towards fresh-hopped New World browns. Nice balanced hop kick of floral and pine notes over caramel maltiness. A trailblazer for hop-forward browns.

Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale

A very English nut brown emanating from Yorkshire. Lives up to its name with prominent hazelnut character and hints of almond. A creamy, lingering finish.

Cigar City Maduro Brown Ale

A toasty, silky Tampa-brewed brown with chocolate malt as the star. Maduro refers to the dark cigar tobacco leaves that inspire the colour and rich malt flavours.

Bell's Best Brown Ale

One of the best year-round American versions. Chocolate-coffee notes with restrained bitterness make it very drinkable. A touch of rye spice adds interest.

Avery Ellie's Brown Ale

A unique recipe using Belgian yeast and American hops like Chinook and Columbus. Spicy, fruity esters with hoppy aromas tickle the nose before caramel malts wash over the palate.

With such diversity, sampling across the different brown ale styles opens up new flavours and insights into this underappreciated beer category.

4 beers on a table, the left beer is brown ale
4 beers on a table, the left beer is brown ale

How to Brew Your Own Brown Ale at Home

Want to recreate those malty brown flavours at home? Here's an easy brown ale homebrewing recipe to try:

Ingredients:

  • 6.5 lbs Maris Otter pale malt

  • 1 lb 60L crystal malt (for caramel flavours)

  • 8 oz chocolate malt (for brown colour and roasty notes)

  • 2 oz UK Fuggle hops at 60 min (for bitterness)

  • 1 oz UK Fuggle hops at 15 min (for flavour)

  • London ESB Ale Yeast

Steps:

  1. Heat 2.5 gallons water to 155°F and steep crushed crystal and chocolate malts for 30 minutes to extract flavours and colour.

  2. Strain out grains and dissolve pale malt extract into "tea" you've made.

  3. Bring to a boil and add first hop addition. Boil 60 minutes total.

  4. Add a second hop addition at 15 minutes left in boil.

  5. Cool wort and transfer to the fermenter. Add yeast once cooled below 70°F.

  6. Ferment at 65°F for 1-2 weeks until final gravity reached.

  7. Transfer to secondary to condition for 1 week. Add dry hops if you'd like more aroma.

  8. Keg or bottle, carbonate, and enjoy your homebrewed brown ale!

The mix of specialty and pale malts with moderate English hops makes for an easy drinking brown that lets the malt flavour shine through. Brew one yourself!

Common Ingredients Used in Brown Ale Brewing

Brown ales strike a careful balance between maltiness, roastiness, and hop bitterness. Here are some of the key ingredients leveraged:

Specialty Malts

Chocolate malt - Nutty, cocoa flavours

Crystal/Caramel malt - Sweetness, toffee notes

Brown malt - Mild roasted profile

Victory malt - Nutty, biscuity qualities

Base Malts

Pale ale malt - Light flavour base that lets specialty malts shine

Maris Otter - Adds depth with subtle biscuity character

Hops Varieties

UK: Fuggle, East Kent Goldings, Challenger - Earthy, spicy

US: Willamette, Northern Brewer, Cascade - Floral, piney, citrus

Playing with different combinations of the above malts and hops provides countless options for homebrewers looking to riff on brown ale recipes.

Key Factors That Affect Brown Ale Flavour

Several variables during the brewing process influence the final flavour of brown ales:

Mash Temperature

Higher mash temps enhance malty sweetness. Lower temps lead to more fermentable wort and drier finish.

Boil Duration

Longer boils increase caramelisation and Maillard browning reactions for deeper malt complexity.

Yeast Selection

English yeasts accentuate maltiness. American strains add cleaner fermentation and allow hops to shine.

Hop Additions Timing

Early kettle hopping boosts bitterness. Late hopping highlights aromatic oils.

Water Chemistry

Adjusting water profile can enhance malt flavours and smooth harsh roasted notes.

Fine tuning these elements during the brew day gives the brewer exacting control over the final beer's characteristics.

Common Tasting Notes in Brown Ales

When sampling brown ales, keep an eye out for these classic flavour and aroma notes:

Malt

Caramel - Toffee, butterscotch

Chocolate - Cocoa, mocha

Coffee - Roasted, dark coffee

Toast - Cracker, bread crust

Nuts - Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts

Hops

Earthy - Dirt, dry leaves

Spicy - Black pepper, clove

Citrus - Orange, lemon zest

Pine - Resinous, woodsy

Floral - Perfume, rose

Yeast

Fruity esters - Apple, pear, plum

Nutty esters - Peanut, almond

Drinking browns with sensory analysis in mind helps identify the subtle influences of ingredients and processes on the beers. Make tasting and assessing these brews a learning experience.

Brown Ale Food Pairing Suggestions

Malt-driven browns pair wonderfully with various meat dishes. Consider pairing your brown ale with:

  • Steak tips - The light roasted notes resonate with charred beef.

  • Burgers - Malty sweetness contrasts the savoury patties.

  • Pork chops - Toasty malts align with roasted pork.

  • Chicken wings - Crisp carbonation cuts through saucy wings.

  • Chili - Spiced stews are nice counterparts to malty browns.

Of course, don't limit yourself. Find what foods you most enjoy with your brown ale. The diversity of styles offers tons of pairing potential.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Brewing Brown Ale

While relatively straightforward, some potential pitfalls exist in brewing browns:

  • Under attenuation - Ensure complete fermentation to avoid sweet, heavy beers.

  • Acrid roasted flavours - Steep speciality grains gently around 150°F to smooth harshness.

  • Oxidation - Limit splashing during transfers to keep freshness. Purge kegs/bottles with CO2.

  • Low head retention - Add small amounts of carafoam or dextrin malt to boost foam stability.

  • Poor clarity - Utilise finings like Irish moss or gelatin to clear up haze.

  • Infection - Sanitise everything thoroughly that touches beer after the boil.

Mastering these fundamentals results in clean, quality brown ales worth sharing with fellow beer enthusiasts.

Ideas for Experimenting with Brown Ales

The balanced nature of brown ales makes them a great style to riff on:

  • Odd grains - Try replacing some base malt with rye, oats, or wheat for new dimensions.

  • Double down - Brew an imperial brown ale pushing the ABV into a heady 9%+ range.

  • New hops - Deviate from English varieties with fruity American or Down Under hops.

  • Barrel-ageing - Time in a whiskey or wine barrel can work magic.

  • Spice it up - Ginger, orange peel, cocoa nibs, vanilla, or coffee make tantalising additions.

  • Mixed fermentation - Add souring cultures for a wild tangent.

Tweaking the basic blueprint creates exciting new brown ale experiences for the adventurous brewer or drinker.

Ready to Try a Brown Ale?

We've covered all things brown ale - from its centuries-old English origins to modern American and Belgian interpretations. When crafted well, few beer styles can match brown ales for delivering delicious malt complexity in such drinkable, balanced packages.

Top browns shine through letting premium specialty malts take centre stage, with hops playing a supporting role. While understated compared to in-your-face IPAs or imperial stouts, this subtle elegance is what makes brown ales special.

With their diversity and depth, don't underestimate the humble brown ale. Sampling across the style spectrum unlocks new flavours and insights into the influence of ingredients and processes on finished beers.

Understanding brown ale history equips you to know what to look for when tasting. Hopefully this guide has illuminated the nuances that make brown ales wonderful showcases of the brewer's art. Next time you see a brown on the tap list, don't pass it up - give this underrated style its deserved attention.

Want to read more about brown ale, craft beer, homebrewing or anything in between? Check out the Brewpedia blog!

FAQ About Brown Ales

Q: What is brown ale?

A: Brown ale is a style of beer that is usually dark amber to a medium brown in colour. It is brewed using brown malt and light hops, which give it a caramel and chocolate-like flavour.

Q: What are the characteristics of brown ale?

A: Brown ales are usually milder and less hoppy compared to pale ales. They have a caramel-like sweetness with notes of chocolate and fruitiness. The beer colour can range from a translucent amber to a medium brown.

Q: How is brown ale brewed?

A: Brown ale is brewed using brown malt and light hops. The brown malt provides the beer with its characteristic flavour and colour. It is typically fermented using ale yeast at moderate temperatures.

Q: What are some examples of brown ale?

A: Some examples of brown ale include Manns Brown Ale, Cigar City Brewing's Maduro Brown Ale, and Smuttynose Brewing's Old Brown Dog Ale.

Q: What is an English-style brown ale?

A: An English-style brown ale refers to a brown ale that follows the brewing traditions of the southern and northern English beers. It is known for its milder and sweeter flavour compared to other brown ales.

Q: What is the alcohol content of brown ale?

A: The alcohol content of brown ale can vary, but it is typically around 4-6% ABV (alcohol by volume).

Q: How does brown ale compare to other beer styles?

A: Brown ale is generally considered to be a medium-bodied beer with a malt-forward flavour profile. It is less hoppy and lighter in colour compared to darker beer styles such as stouts and porters.

Q: Can you recommend a brewery that produces brown ale?

A: Cigar City Brewing is known for its Maduro Brown Ale, which is a popular example of the style. They are a well-respected brewery in the craft beer industry.

Q: What is the SRM (Standard Reference Method) of brown ale?

A: The SRM of brown ale can vary depending on the specific beer, but it typically falls within the range of 15-25. SRM is a measurement used to determine the colour of beer.

Q: Is brown ale carbonated?

A: Yes, brown ale is typically carbonated, but the amount of carbonation can vary by brewery and specific beer.

Despite the name, brown ales are defined more by their malt-forward flavour profiles rather than just colour alone. They feature prominent maltiness balanced by low to moderate hop bitterness.

Within the broad brown ale style umbrella exist varied substyles from regional English browns to American and Belgian takes. But in general, malty sweetness paired with cocoa, caramel, toffee and nutty flavours unite these diverse brown brews.