Why there’s no such beer as ‘English brown ale’

The man who invented brown ale …

The ability to deny the evidence of your senses is widespread. There’s the dictator insisting to television interviewers that his people love him, while across the country those long-oppressed people are taking up arms and waving the flag of liberation. And on a much less serious plane, there are people who will insist two beers that look totally different, taste totally different and are produced in totally different ways are variations of the same type.

It’s like setting up a category “horse” and insisting the seahorse and the clothes horse are its sub-categories. That’s slightly more ridiculous than insisting that Newcastle Brown Ale and Mann’s Brown Ale are sub-types of something called “English Brown Ale”. But it involves an identical confusion between “name” and “category”.

I don’t actually have any problems with the idea of “beer styles”. Labels can be very useful. But only if they’re meaningful. When I read that someone is going to be brewing “an English Brown Ale”, I have no idea what sort of beer they are intending to produce.

Look, here’s Newcastle Brown Ale, the urtyp “northern brown ale”, so-called. It’s “brown” only in the sense that if I had a pair of shoes that colour I would probably call them “brown”, if I didn’t call them “tan”. The beer is made – or was made, the method has changed, certainly since production was moved from Tyneside to Tadcaster in North Yorkshire – by mixing a low-gravity beer brewed at about 1030 OG (and sold separately for many years as Newcastle Amber Ale) with a matured, darker (from crystal malt and caramel) high-gravity beer to produce a blend with an abv of 4.7 per cent. The high-gravity beer gives fruity notes to the blend, and a final colour that is much the same as or only a little darker than many traditional English bitters, and certainly paler than, for example, Young’s Winter Warmer (which is a Burton Ale). The sweeter, maltier characteristics are more forward than you’d find in a bitter/pale ale, and there’s less of the hop apparent than would be found even in a Burton: bitterness, I believe is 24 IBU.

Then there’s Mann’s Brown Ale, the urtyp so-called “southern brown ale”. Brown? It’s almost black. That colour comes from roasted malt, and as you’d expect this is a beer with distinct chocolatey, roasty flavours (though less than you’d find in a stout or porter). It also has considerable sweetness (another one of the differences between this style of brown ale and stout – and Newcastle Brown Ale) and almost no hop character (brewers would use Mid-Kents and other non-premium hops for brown ales, and old hops as well, where the aromatic qualities had vanished but the preservative ones remained). Apart from the name also containing the words “brown ale”, Mann’s is utterly different from Newcastle Brown Ale. How can anyone with their brain not in “standby” mode think it works at all to ram these two very dissimilar beers under a single category called “English brown ale”?

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Bottle-ageing beers: the don’ts and do’s

There’s a simple rule for most modern bottled beers when it comes to ageing: don’t. It’s not worth it. Probably the vast majority of beers are designed to be drunk fresh, and all they will do if you keep them is deteriorate. However, a few beers actually need ageing before they’re in perfect condition, even if only for a couple of weeks to a month (in the case of lower-gravity bottle-conditioned ales) and some need even longer than that: nine months to two years before they’re drinkable.

For example, when bottled Guinness Extra Stout (at 4.2 per cent abv) was a “live” naturally conditioned beer (until 1994 in the UK and 2000 in Ireland) the expected number of days after bottling before the beer came into condition was seven to 14, with an average of 10 days. (This depended on the ambient temperature that the beer was stored at, of course, and it was the fact that, thanks to the arrival of central heating, pubs were much warmer inside by the 1980s that Guinness decided it needed to stop letting its stout mature naturally in the bottle: hotter pubs meant faster maturation meant the beer in the bottle was not in the condition Guinness wanted when it reached the customer’s glass.)

The stronger Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (7.5 per cent or so abv), when that was a naturally conditioned bottled beer, before 1948, required six weeks of conditioning after bottling but was then expected to remain in a perfectly drinkable state for at least a year. Lactic acid content increased as the beer aged in the bottle, but was balanced by the production of esters and other volatile components in the maturing beer, and the lactic acid was believed to add to the “fullness” of the flavour. Brewing chemists at Guinness found that yeast could survive in bottled FES for up to 35 years, suggesting that a beer could continue to mature for at least that long.

Worthington White Shield, the 5.6 per cent abv bottle-conditioned India Pale Ale, is considered to take four weeks from bottling to come into prime condition, and to stay in condition for another nine months. After that, the beer is likely to be in a less than optimum state. Anecdotal evidence suggests that White Shield will come back into condition at 15 or 16 months old, albeit with an altered taste profile. It will not, though, survive much beyond about 24 months without showing signs of deterioration.

It’s an interesting experiment to take a crate of newly-bottled lowish-gravity bottle-conditioned beers and taste them over three or four months: when I had a wedding stout made for me by the Pitfield brewery, which was bottled “live” in June at around 5 per cent abv, it hit perfection (and very fine it was) two months later, in August. After that it gradually went downhill (unlike, I’m happy to say, my marriage).

My experience is that the effect of bottle ageing on beer varies considerably depending on (1) the alcoholic content of the beer (2) whether it is bottle-conditioned, that is, contains live yeast, or not (3) the conditions under which the bottle is kept and (4) the colour of the beer, with darker beers ageing better than lighter ones. I’ve drunk a 20-year-old pasteurised 8 per cent abv stout that was fine: I doubt the same would be true of a pale beer that old, even one that strong.

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