Mashing in

This month, Charlotte Cook writes a love letter to the much-maligned brown ale


The leaves are falling, the mornings are decidedly crisper, and the seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness are truly upon us. It’s certainly turning into dark beer season, and around about the time you put the extra duvet on the bed, it’s time to break out the amber ales and porters and drink something warming. 

I’ve never massively subscribed to the idea of seasonal drinking, and if you want to drink a 14% bourbon barrel aged imperial stout in the height of summer, be my guest (but please remember, friends keep friends hydrated). That’s all changed after lockdown and going to the pub for a few has become somewhat more of a sacred sacrament partaken of in a hallowed shrine, rather than the blurry last vestiges of memory on a particularly messy Thursday. I am now actively excited for autumnal beers to start arriving on the bar, especially cask beers, where the beautiful caramel and roasted malts deliver a much-needed hit of flavour after the crispier beers of the warmer months. 

I grew up in the sprawling conurbation of South Tyneside, a mass of red brick and heavy industry, and close enough to the home of Newcastle Brown Ale to allow me a certain degree of local pride. I remember the Federation Brewery, the main production site for Brown Ale, as a hulking monolith of concrete and corrugated iron, seemingly sitting alone beside the motorway in an expanse of greenfield emptiness. We’d only go past the brewery to get to the Metrocentre or IKEA, so this ominous building stood in stark contrast to the glittering palaces of capitalism nearby, and as such I used to actively dread driving past, like there was a bomb inside that could go off at any time, and I didn’t want to be near it. Little did I know that inside they were creating a beer that is known the world over. 

Brown ales are not sexy, and even the name is a little off-putting, bringing to mind images of nicotine-stained pub ceilings, the Artex discoloured so it looks like a topographical map shrouding the flat-capped drinkers below. The kind of thing that Hilda Ogden might have a half of on a day-trip to the Peak District, not what an urban sophisticate would order in a city centre pub. 

This is an unfair malignment, in my opinion; the style is not an easy one to brew, the malts need to be well balanced to prevent acidity or acrid burnt notes, as well as using hops in a careful way. There’s nowhere to hide with a brown ale, it’s not like you can just dry hop it to within an inch of its life to hide any defects, and as such it is not a fashionable style. Even the most respected breweries will have a brown ale in the warehouse for weeks, when a hoppy IPA might disappear within days. 

Brown ales have a wonderful place in the beer world

Brown ales have a wonderful place in the beer world though; they’re malty and have lovely warming toffee notes, but lack the roasted character of a porter, making them uniquely sweet and easy to drink. The hops can shine through and take on new characteristics when combined with the caramel malts and fruitier yeast strains. These beers also just smell like autumn, the olfactory equivalent of finding a conker in your coat pocket, with spice and treacle and berry notes all at the forefront. They’re a delightful addition to the seasonal offerings and I would encourage everyone to make an effort to try one this winter. For me, it’s never truly Christmas at home until I’ve had a bottle of the local Wildcat amber ale from the nearby pub, ideally after a freezing cold walk through the hills, and hoping it won’t be too icy on the way back. 

They're a delightful addition to the seasonal offerings

I think it’s also important to drink and protect traditional beer styles, with the drive towards innovation in brewing the older styles have been a little cast aside, and unless we make an effort to seek out these beers they will die out. As a nation we have already lost a huge amount of our brewing heritage, and it would be a shame to lose something as tangible and enjoyable as a traditional style. 

Brown ales are also versatile, and lend themselves well to additions such as maple syrup, pecan nuts and vanilla, flavours that wouldn’t work so well in a more hop forward style, so there are ways of modernising brown ales without consigning them to the great drip tray in the sky. 

I hope that all of you take the time to go and try a new brown or amber ale this winter, and to think about how nuanced and delicious it is, before going back and having another three and trying not to slip on leaves on the walk home.

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