For whatever reason, I’ve never really got on with Newcastle Brown Ale… but I wanted to. There was a bit of a boom for the brand in the mid ‘90s, fuelled by a failed attempt by an Australian brewer to buy it. For a while front labels were inverted (I hadn’t noticed until someone pointed it out) and there was a general fuss made across the north east. So I gave it a crack again back then, but no, it just didn’t flick any switches for me… at least not on taste anyway. I’ve always liked the bottle; I’ve always liked the schooner glass and I’ve always bought into those hard-working leg-pulling Geordie values. Taste though – didn’t get it and still don’t.
Yet, like with mild, there’s a bit of a general brown resurgence going on. This was triggered this last weekend gone by a pint of ‘Milkwood’ in a local Vintage Inn. Brewed by Brain’s in commemoration of Dylan Thomas, it’s a 4.3% brown ale. And it is brown, which is a start. Don’t mock – one of my issues with Newkie Brown is that’s it’s not – it’s more of a deep, chestnut red. No it is –buy one and have a look. It’s not unattractive, just not that brown. So anyway, Milkwood – a brown ale. And putting to one side the less than scrupulously clean glassware, it was a decent enough pint. A tightly loose head with a thick creaminess that somehow managed to support some big bubbles, mid brown colour and a clean, malty taste with just a touch of granary crust nuttiness. Nice lacing too which I like to see. And selling well up against Pedigree and Everard’s Tiger.
The interest in the style is good to see, for it could have gone the way of the Dodo. Original styles, dating back 300 years or thereabouts were likely brewed with brown malt that a higher level of roast from direct fired malting. Pale malt revolutionised beer both in the UK and on the continent – but with every revolution there is a loser, and brown ale was one. Whilst brown ale continued to be brewed, they became sourced from pale malt, or crystal malts, that add a more coating sweetness, or were pepped up with a generous pitching in of brewing sugars. Strengths fell over time too, a trend exacerbated by two wars, until eventually only really Mann’s Brown Ale existed as a connection with the original brews from the past (Newcastle Brown Ale was a twentieth century invention, ironically by a brewer from Burton).
I wonder though how much of the recent resurgence in the style comes down to what’s going on across the pond. Newcastle Brown itself has become that old chestnut: 15 year overnight success story – selling about 450,000 barrels of beer to the USA each year. It’s now the number one British brand over there. The once positively ubiquitous Bass has been soundly mismanaged by Anheuser and Newkie Brown has doffed its grateful hat and Dyson’ed up their business. The American craft brewers too have copied and reinvented the style. As you would imagine, many US versions have a more distinct hop character, but are none the worse for it. Sierra Nevada do a very drinkable Autumn Brown Ale, and the wonderfully named Dogfish Head also do an ‘Indian Brown Ale’ which I snuck into my repertoire whilst out in Denver on beer business one night. Something similar happened in Hawaii* too – where I had a brown ale from the Kona Brewing Company (which I only bought at the time because I was thinking of buying a Kona Mountain Bike and wondered if the two were linked. They weren’t – and remember folks, don’t drink and ride.) This one in particular was a smoothly drinkable version, reasonably hopped. It reminded me of the Geordie nick name for Newcastle Brown, ‘Dog’ so called because it bites your legs. Well the Kona Indian Brown Ale certainly did, as it was secretly hiding a mid 5s alcohol.
I’m pleased the style is having a revival, particularly in the UK. Whilst I like the hoppier versions from the US, I find that there are enough IPAs and double IPAs doing the ol’ hop 1-2 full frontal. A beer style that swings the other way as it were, with a lingering sweet character is needed in the lexicon of beers. As well as being moreish, who knows, perhaps a brown ale will make it through to be a recommended beer with this week’s Great Beertish Menu!
*At the border, the normally serious and scary US officers were quite genial. The one who stamped my passport however was a little disbelieving: “You’re here on business. Yeah, right”. Alas, I was.
© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012