American Brown Ale: the pre-prohibition years

I don’t normally get involved in exploring American beer history, not just because there are people far better qualified than me to do the job, but also because I know how easily I could make a fool of myself for lack of local knowledge: like the American who wrote a book about Guinness and said that the Park Royal brewery was “about 25 miles northwest of Central London”. That would put it out around St Albans, instead of the 10 miles or so from Charing Cross it really was.

However, I do like occasionally digging around in any evidence showing how much continuing British influence there was in the American brewing scene in the 19th and early 20th centuries: and while looking for stuff on the history of English brown ales I found – serendipity again – some fascinating stuff on American brown ales many decades before Pete’s Wicked.

I’ve seen almost no evidence of brown ale being brewed in the US before the 20th century: the ad up there for “pale, brown and amber ale and porter” from John McKnight’s brewery in Albany, New York, which appeared in a directory from 1853/54, is the only example I know. However, amber ale was certainly around, and Burton Ale looks to have been even more popular than I had previously supposed: Trow’s New York City Directory of 1862 has four brewers (out of 21 who had taken adverts in the directory) offering Burton Ale, alongside “pale, golden and amber ales, porter and brown stout” (and only one lager brewer in the lot).

Just over 100 years ago, though – and, probably coincidentally, about the same time brown ale made a reappearance in Britain – advertisements for “nut brown ale” start appearing in American newspapers. The ones I have found mostly appear in the “mid-Atlantic” states, specifically New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, although this may be an artefact caused by what newspapers have so far been digitised on the net. One of the earliest is actually from the Steubenville Herald-Star over in Ohio, on Tuesday, December 24 1907, which carried a small ad requesting readers to ” “Try our November Brew of the Standard Brewing Co. Nut Brown Ale on draught at the Antler Cafe”.

The oldest “American nut brown ale” ad I have found, however, is from the Pittsburgh Press of November 10 1906, with the Pittsburg Brewing Co making a deliberate hark-back to “the ‘Nut Brown Ale of Old England'”, complete with illustration of Robin Hood and his Merry Men getting merry on nut-brown ale. (What is just as fascinating as the beery reference, for me, is the “men in tights” iconography used for the Sherwood Forest outlaws: if you had though, as I did, that it was Errol Flynn who made a neat beard, a bobbed hairdo and a peaked hat with a long feather in it obligatory for any depiction of Robin of Locksley and the lads in Lincoln Green, clearly it’s a rather older meme than that, predating even Douglas Fairbanks in 1922.)

Brown ale looks to have been a winter speciality: an advertisement in the Geneva Advertiser-Gazette from New York state on December 14 1911 declares Geneva Olde Brown Ale a “Special brew for the holidays” and insists: “No dinner in Geneva will be complete in the Holiday Season without a bottle of Geneva ‘Olde Brown Ale’ on the table.” (It’s also interesting to see that the brewery’s other beers were porter, and “‘Home Brew’ (pale)” – “home brew” is a very English designation for a style meant to echo the ales made in own-brew pubs, though the evidence suggest English “home-brew” in pubs was brown rather than pale. And check out those two telephone numbers – the Home Telephone Company was a rival to Bell, but it appears to have been necessary for a company to have one line from each.  I’m guessing people with Bell lines couldn’t ring people with Home lines, and vice versa.)

The two other pre-Prohibition American “Nut Brown Ale” ads I have found are also from autumn/winter: the Independent Brewing Co advertised its Nut Brown Ale in the Evening Times, Cumberland, Maryland on Saturday November 23 1912, and the Daily Courier of Connellsville, Pennsylvania carrying an ad on Thursday October 23, 1913 declaring: “Now Ready! Yough Brewing Co’s celebrated Nut Brown Ale on tap and in bottle at all leading hotels.”

After prohibition ended, nut-brown ale reappeared in what looks to have been its “traditional” home, the mid-Atlantic/New England states, with breweries in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Boston advertising the style, and again pushing its suitability as an autum/winter drink. One was the American Brewery in Gay Street, Baltimore: its brewery still stands, looking quite, quite fabulous, though brewing apparently stopped there in 1973. The advert from the Afro-American newspaper in 1934 for American Nut Brown Ale “on draught or by the bottle” again employs “ye olde” English iconography, with a Regency town crier in a very English scene – church with spire, thatched-roof houses – and it even talks about “autumn” rather than fall. Here’s where being English puts me at a disadvantage: would an African-American audience in the 1930s have responded to images of “Olde England”? I have no idea. The images appear to be exactly the same style as the American Brewery used for advertising Nut Brown Ale in the Baltimore Sun, which, I’m guessing here, was more the “white” paper in Baltimore.

The Croft Brewery in Boston also used a traditional image in its ad for its own Nut Brown Ale in the Boston Globe in 1934, with Victorian visitors being shown around the inside of a brewery. Note the brewery worker in the background, depicted in the traditional English brewer’s stocking cap: the ad agency went to some work to get this looking authentic. Pity those vats look more like the sort that porter was matured in, rather than old ale.

The idea of Nut Brown Ale being aged in vats was also plugged hard by Duquesne Brewing of Pittsburgh in ads for its Old Nut Brown Ale in November 1934 – “a flavour mellowed by months in the wood” (so much for “wood-aged beers” being new ….) It’s a British red squirrel on the label, too, rather than an American grey one: reinforcement for the link seen between Nut Brown Ale and Britain. (Incidentally, if I were a brewer in Pittsburgh, I’d have tried very hard to avoid having my telephone line connected to the world through an exchange called Hemlock.)

The Old English connection was stressed a year later in an article in the Pittsburgh Press on October 7 1935, which carried a picture of “the cellar [at the Duquesne brewery] where ale is aged and mellowed before going to market”. The photograph shows two rows of what look like at least seven huge vats per row, 10 or so feet high: a very rough guess, I think, says they couldn’t have been smaller than 300 barrels each (although there is a painted sign on the nearest left-hand vat that looks as if it might say “130bbl”, for “barrels”, together with the number 47). Presumably they were pre-Prohibition survivors: can’t imagine they were built in 1933. The piece reads like advertorial for Duquesne, but it’s worth quoting in full:

It’s an Old English Custom – This Drinking ale in Autumn

Monks Developed Process Centuries Ago and Brewers Have Since Perfected It – Differs From Beer in Many Ways

A view of the cellar where ale is aged and mellowed before going to market

It must be something in the blood – a sort of throwback to our lusty ancestors – that makes us associate the word “ale” with the cool days and crisp, clear nights of the harvest season.

Whatever the connection may be, it is certain that there is an inseparable link between foaming, tawny-gold ale and the exhilarating air of autumn.

According to John A. Friday, president of the Duquesne Brewing Co, makers of the famous Old Nut Brown Ale, it’s all very natural. “It is a physiological fact that people shake off the torpor of the summer and tend to live more actively and vigorously in the autumn,” said Mr Friday. “Ale is the natural companion to those conditions, because it differs from beer in much the same sense that autumn differs from summer. It is more active. Vigorous and stimulating; has more tang and zest and sparkle. It has a snap in it.

“Ale differs from beer right from the start,” continued Mr Friday. “Ale is brewed differently and fermented at higher temperatures. Ale ferments from the top; whereas beer ferments from the bottom. And the yeast used in brewing ale even has different cell characteristics: ale yeast has round or circular-shaped cells, while the yeast used for beer has ovular (egg-shaped cells).

“Ale drinking is essentially an old English custom. English monks developed the process centuries ago and the breweries of England have reached a high state of perfection in the making of ale. Our method of brewing Old Not Brown Ale is basically the same as the most advanced English methods. Especial regard is given to the water we use, in order to supply the same properties as those of the waters of an English stream on whose banks some of their most famous ales are made.

“In the making of a quality ale the brewer must exercise extreme care. That keen, extra tang doesn’t come by chance. It has to be scientifically developed and carefully protected. For example, aside from selecting the finest malt, grain, yeast and hops, we must have definite means of assuring unvarying temperatures throughout the entire process. That is very important, and we use exact thermostatic temperature control exclusively, plus air-filtered and conditioned rooms.

“After fermentation the brew is kept in storage from two to four weeks, at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, during which time special imported hops are introduced to impart that distinctive flavour and tang.” It is tested and tasted daily, and when the desired taste it acquired it is cooled to 34 degrees Fahrenheit and stored for final aging in huge wooden casks, where it remains months until just the proper mellowness is achieved.

“After the ale has fully ripened and mellowed it is thoroughly filtered and clarified to impart brilliant, sparkling, crystal clear transparency. Then it is packaged in barrels, kegs, or bottles, and is ready for delivery to the trade.”

You’ll have spotted that Mr Friday was using a fair amount of what is technically known as “marketing b/s” there – not least in the guff about replicating the waters of an English stream. Almost all English brewers used well water, of course – and I’ve seen a brewing chemist’s report for a brewery in rural North Hertfordshire which warned the company that the pretty stream running past their premises was “practically the drain” of several cottages back up the brook, and had sewage in it. You wouldn’t necessarily want your ale made with the waters of any old English stream.

Still, the report gives us important notes on Old Nut Brown Ale: “tawny-gold” in colour, apparently, if the ale that the writer was talking about in the second paragraph of the piece was the same drink; warm-fermented, it seems, certainly with top-fermenting yeast; dry-hopped and warm-conditioned at 55F for two to four weeks; then cold-conditioned at 34F for at least a couple of months. Not sure that last bit would be normal for an English ale at the time. (You’ll also note Mr Friday’s use of “ale” and “beer” – “ale” was the top-fermented stuff, “beer” was lager. And talking of lager, I doubt that Mr Friday was amused that the article about Old Nut Brown Ale appeared in the newspaper alongside an ad for Iron City lager from his rivals, the Pittsburgh Brewing Co.)

There is not a lot more about brown ale over the next 50 or so years in North America, though a curious ad appears in the Regina Leader-Post in Saskatchewan, Canada in July 1941 for the Regina Brewing Co’s “Ye Olde English Nut Brown Ale” which claimed that its beer was “brewed from a famous and secret English formula” which “wartime conditions in England, with their adverse effect on English industry” had made it possible for Regina Brewing “to procure what we believe to be the finest formula for ale of this type”, while “Experts agree we have succeeded in applying this formula in an almost uncanny fashion.”

That’s it, until Pete Slosberg decided to try to bring brown ale back to the US again in the mid-1980s. But as Jeff Alworth discusses in an insightful blogpost here, while Pete’s Wicked Ale effectively invented the modern American Brown Ale, this was not a style with long-lasting appeal. Brewing of Pete’s Wicked Ale ended in May after years of declining sales, following Old Nut Brown and the rest into the trashcan.

0 thoughts on “American Brown Ale: the pre-prohibition years

  1. Very interesting. I was just reading that the founders of what is now Moosehead Brewery in Canada brought a brown October recipe to their new homeland. Some details here:

    The North American versions, many of which referred to October or November or otherwise seasonal brewings, designed to last a few months, appear to me to have been in inspiration English October beer, the brown type. There were pale and brown types according to some 1700’s sources. Season-brewed ale.

    That home-brewing IMO was referring to English manor beers which were pale mostly I think by the 1800’s but again some were brown, I don’t think there was a clear dividing line between these and the Americanised brown season beers, not in essence anyway.

    Americans until about 1980 used “beer” to mean lager, and “ale” to mean top-fermented beer, I agree with that. This has now changed due to the new conditions under which brewing operates, i.e., since the modern craft era began.


  2. Martyn, I’d like to comment separately on the Pete’s Wicked type of brown ale. Upon release it seemed to me something genuinely new: an ale seemingly along the lines of a northern English brown bottled beer (e.g. Newcastle Brown, Double Maxim, Federated’s Brown) but with an assertive American hop taste. In my own memory of pre-1980 American beers, I can’t recall an example of brown ale. There may have been the odd holdover from the era you were describing in the 1930’s, but in leafing this morning through Jim Robertson’s The Great American Beer Book (1978), I couldn’t find any. There was pale lager, “dark” (vaguely Munich-derived), the odd bock (Germanic again at least in inspiration), the odd porter, and some cream or stock ale or ale unqualified (which tasted mostly rather lager-like). And famously, there was Ballantine IPA. But no brown ale that I can recall. So Pete’s Wicked Ale was a welcome entrant and a delicious recipe, I was sorry to read it isn’t brewed any longer. But other North American craft brewers brew something similar here and there, so its influence has endured.


  3. The Wachusett Beer Company in Westminster, Mass. has been brewing the Wachusett Nut Brown Ale (ABV 5.2%, 17 IBUs) since 1995.

  4. It’s interesting that you note the British influence on early American brewing. That’s what initially started Alan on the quest for Albany Ale. He questioned not British influence, but rather, how much influence the Dutch had on colonial beer making. What we learned was, rum production, by both the Dutch and British was more prominent until the post American Revolutionary period. There were a few Dutch brewers very early on—most notably Harmen Harmanse, Albert Janse and the Ryckman Family. However, It would not be until the early part of the 19th century that beer brewing—from the English tradition—in Albany would take off, and dominate the beer trade in the U.S. until the 1870s and 80s.

    As far as McKnight, the brewery operated from the 1840s and moved to its last location on Hawk and Canal (now Sheridan Avenue) in 1852, until its closure in 1875. They were not a large operation, Taylor & Sons and Amsdell Brothers, being significantly larger. Although I have seen one other ad for McKnight producing Brown Ale from an 1859 directory. The ad also refernces McKnight’s Malt Wine and XX.

    Taylor, Amsdell, G.F. Grainger, as well as Quinn & Nolan (later Albany Brewing Co.) produced Burton Ale in the Albany area, between the 1870s and early 1900s. Read Brothers of Troy (just up the Hudson from Albany) made Burton as early as 1862.

  5. Well now, in Australia there are a fair few Brown Ales cropping up, in the American style, though employing Australian hops.
    Springing to mind are Little Creatures Brown Ale and Murray’s Angry Man Brown Ale.

    I’m thinking there’s an ‘around the world in 150 years’ thing going on here.

  6. Brown ale, monk derived, dry hopped and barrel aged! How very modern 🙂

    Shame for Duquesne that they didn’t think of releasing it only one day a year at the brewery to build a worldwide hype!

  7. Hi there,
    I was canoeing on the Yough river near Perryopolis and found a brown beer bottle embossed with Yough Brewing Co. Connelsville, Pa there is an Indian head in the middle of the label and it says registered on the bottom edge of the bottle. there is a seam that goes all of the way up to the top. Any history on this? any value to it?

  8. […] There are also references to brown ale in colonial American history — though it was apparently made with molasses, and was almost certainly a different beverage than the brown ale we know today. (An interesting digression into the history of brown ale in pre-prohibition America, complete with early beer ads, can be found here.) […]

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