Lying a little bit longer under the warm covers on a cold winter morning. The smell of a loaf of dark, multi-grain bread baking in the oven. Locking a beer away to cellar in an antique chest with a lustrous, time and care worn finish.
Brown. More specifically, brown beer.
The colour brown has certain connotations, some of which I won’t dwell on. But used in reference to beer, it can signify a kind of depressing old fashioned-ness – to refer to a traditional bitter as ‘brown’ seems to suggest it belongs to a bygone corduroy-trousered era. As breweries who pride themselves on their modernity focus on beers that are either decidedly pale or unmistakably black, the unglamorous brown middle ground is consistently neglected.
So for Session 120, let’s buck the trend and contemplate brown beer. This might be brown ale, or the aforementioned English bitter; it could be a malty Belgian brune, a dubbel or a tart oud bruin; even a German dunkel might qualify.
I love brown beers, more so than probably any other kind (which I also love; I love all beer.) I love them for their complexity. I find them comforting, tied to many sense memories. I don’t quite get the received wisdom in the beer world that no one will buy brown beers.
IPAs, as many readers are surely aware, dominate the American craft beer market. Hops are a fantastic ingredient that offer so many inviting and intriguing aromas and flavors. The typical American IPA, in my view, sacrifices too much in order to show case only one of the four essential ingredients in beer. Neutral yeast strains and single note grain bills certainly allow the hop lover to concentrate on what they buy beer. For those with more well rounded palates, they leave something to be desired.
Give me an English IPA, which arguably brushes up against the lightest end of brown beer. For my own recipe, I combine healthy amounts of traditional English hops with an heirloom base malt and a generous portion of a complementary, lightly toasted specialty malt. I can produce that wonderful hop hit in the aroma, follow up with the crisp bitterness and pleasing floral notes plus a light but substantial malt canvas. To me using the full palette of available ingredients brings so much more enjoyment to an IPA than the almost sterile, oh so pale base in the version of the style the market seems to favor.
True brown beer need not be predominantly malty or overly sweet. At the darkest end of the spectrum, specialty malts often work to cut across or deepen the base malt. Specialty malts can add among other flavors roasted coffee, dark chocolate, and even ash and smoke which can be pleasant in appropriately small doses. In between the pale and the dark, the sweetness itself can exhibit wonderful characters–burnt sugar, dark fruit, toasted bread.
IPA is not the only style that could benefit from better choices for water, yeast and hops. A deft brewer can enrich a brown ale with subtle hints of fruity esters from the right ale yeast. Water chemistry typically favors chloride to bring out the sweet but I am convinced the right recipe could just as easily be supported by bumping hop bite with a swing to the sulfate side of the ratio. As for hops, I made a historic brown stout recently that is as heavily hopped as any IPA, it was delicious. The right hop, in this case not surprisingly another traditional British variety in the form of Bramling Cross, adds yet another layer of wonderful surprise.
I have few strong associations with other beer styles. In the Summer, when grilling, I crave IPAs. In the darkest cold of Winter, of course I want a boozy stout though I am just as likely to want a warm, brown barley wine. One of my earliest “Ah ha!” beers was a Belgian brown. In the moderate seasons, Spring and Autumn, just about every sight, sound and smell reminds me of a different, specific brown beer or style of brown beer. Each unique brown beer I try forms some new association, almost by automatically. The once regular trips I used to make to the Bier Baron for epic tastings, my selections there being dominated by darker beers. Bottle shares and beer fests, happy hours and hang outs.
So why is the received wisdom that brown beer doesn’t sell? The only rationale I’ve heard is that the term brown literally evokes too many negative associations, ones I’ll leave to the imagination of the reader (mostly.) I think that’s a load of something brown. If marketers can make dish soap appealing, or literally any other mundane commodity, why is brown beer such a struggle?
Maybe the problem is there is too much to love about brown beer. For IPAs, lagers, red ales, and stouts, there is a single image, more or less, that instantly springs into the mind of the drinker. A good brewer executes exactly that beer, a great one subtly plays off the expectations, yielding delightful surprises without straying from the core notion. Perhaps the range that brown beer covers produces a gestalt that is too fuzzy in that same drinker’s mind, making it difficult to execute to style or to transcend it.
Maybe greater specificity is needed, maybe some way to obliterate expectation so we can just enjoy whatever aspect of a brown beer the brewer choses to share with us. Much still to ponder–in the mean time, I am going to enjoy a brown beer.