A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: Mellow, malty, generally uncomplicated fermented alcoholic beverage. Commonly associated with England.
And here’s why I like it:
1. It’s historic. Malty, lightly hopped brown ales go as far back as the 1700s, and the style has been described as “probably one of England’s oldest beer styles.”
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.)
When you drink brown ale, you are slaking your thirst as countless millions have before you … as, indeed, your great-great-great-great-great-great-half-uncle might have done after a long day in the colliery. He didn’t need no stinking triple-hopped jacked-up IPA to soak his throat.
If it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.
2. It’s rocket fuel for Anglophiles. The world’s most popular brown ale brand tells everybody it’s from England. Perhaps because of that, brown ale as a general style maintains a strong association with its mother country in most beer drinkers’ minds.
So if you like the Kinks or the Jam … or you own at least one football scarf … or if you know all the words to “Jerusalem” … or can spout “Goon Show” repartee or Peter Cook monologues from memory … or use the expression “innit?” a lot, without consciously thinking about it … or have a bottle of HP sauce in your cupboard … then brown ale is probably the drink for you.
(For the record, I meet four of the above six criteria. I’ll leave you to guess which ones.)
3. Chug all night. According to legend (translated: this may be bushwah, factually speaking, but I’m gonna believe it for the sake of this blog post), brown ale was developed as a comparatively lower-alcohol style with the intent that it be consumed in quantity without knocking the drinker under the table.
(A beer to have when you’re having more than one. Or a “session beer,” in beer-geek terminology.)
In other words, the stuff was purpose-built to fuel long nights at the pub with your mates, arguing about Notts County‘s latest midfield signings. That’s a pretty forward-looking, pragmatic piece of engineering, if you ask me, and highly commendable.
Since it’s low-alcohol, that also means …
4. … Tastes great, less filling. Want a lighter beer? You don’t have to settle for some watery megabrand sold to you by lowest-common-denominator advertising that insults your intelligence. Choose a brown ale instead, and enjoy an honest, flavorful beverage with deep roots.
Now, I should note that not all brown ales are lower in alcohol. That’s especially true in America, where the Young Turks of the brewing industry have never met a traditional recipe they couldn’t sex up.
(Brooklyn Brewery’s Brooklyn Brown Ale, for instance, is 5.6 percent alcohol, whereas your garden-variety Budweiser is 5 percent. Brooklyn Brewing does good stuff, and I’m sure their brown ale is worth the price of admission; I’m just compelled to point out that it’s not lower in alcohol.)
But if you do your research and/or live near a good beer store, microbrewery or brewpub, you can find a traditional brown ale that’s lower in alcohol.
The Bristlecone Brown Ale pictured above is 4 percent alcohol by volume. That’s lower than Miller Lite, and a whole hell of a lot tastier.
5. It was Steve Marriott’s choice — or one of ’em, anyway. Brown ale’s greatest rock n’ roll claim to fame is its appearance in Humble Pie’s “Thirty Days In The Hole,” in which frontman Marriott declares: “Newcastle Brown / It can sure smack you down.”
The song’s list of indulgences also includes cocaine, hashish and pot — kind of strong company for a 4.7-percent-alcohol brown ale to be keeping.
I can only assume Marriott & Co. drank their brown ale the way they played their guitars — at serious volume.