Monday, August 23, 2010

Anything But Brown and Boring

Growing up in the far north west of Scotland, there were two main beer choices when you finally hit your 18th birthday for your first legal beer. The cool kids at school almost uniformly went for mass produced lagers, your Carlings, Fosters and Tennants of this world. Those outside the secondary school jet set drank Guinness, or Murphy's depending on which pub you went to. When you ventured to the mainland, quarterly trips to Inverness being the highlight of life pretty much (even Skye was a thrill!), pubs with bigger selections beckoned, Caffrey's or John Smith's in a pub rather than from a widgeted can was the height of excitement.

Yet, sat on the bar, seemingly forlorn was Newcastle Brown Ale, the old man beer. As far as I knew nobody drank it other than the old men. Brown ale had an image problem, it was boring. Fast forward nearly 20 years and I still hear the same way of thinking, though usually about bitter as well as brown ale, the so-called "boring brown beers" that Britain seems to excel at producing. A minor aside, it really pisses me off when Brits bash their native products, being lured by the glamour of sexy foreign imports with odd names and sufficiently pretentious ingredients to get mentioned in the Guardian.

Last weekend Mrs Velkyal and I went out with some of my Starr Hill tasting room colleagues for some post work drinkies. I say post work, it was for them post work, it was for me post brewing at Devils Backbone. Just round the corner from the Starr Hill brewery is a pub called Fardowners, and it is a good pub, with nice food, a good buzz and a decent selection of beer. On reading the draught beer selection (sorry I rarely drink a bottle when I go to the pub, I just don't see the point of that unless it is something rare), I was almost aghast when the only beer that appealed was a brown ale from Williamsburg Alewerks just a couple of hours up the road. Aghast purely because I had always thought of brown ale as old man beer, and well, who wants to admit they may be getting old?

Three fabulous pints later and I knew I needed to explore more in the world of brown ale, in particular American Brown Ale, I will however admit to Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale being something of a go to beer in the absence of anything else that take's my fancy. After digging around in the cellar, I found a couple of bottled versions of the Williamsburg Tavern Ale that had so delighted my palate, and as luck would have it, our local supermarket just got in Sierra Nevada's autumnal seasonal, Tumbler, a brown ale.

First up was the Williamsburg Tavern Ale, which poured a deep crimson with a thin, ivory head and then out of the bottle came the evidence of bottle conditioning, a happy surprise! Can we have more bottle conditioned beers over here please? The nose was just as I remembered from Fardowners, lots of cocoa off set with the slightest hoppy citrus thing. Drinking it was a wonderful balance of the sweet chocolate maltiness and the bitter bite of the hops, which are Cascade and Amarillo I believe, to round out the beer there is a soft toffee touch that makes it such easy drinking. Really it was wonderfully smooth and tasty, a great beer for sitting on the balcony in the autumn chill and just watching the sun go down over the turning leaves.

What can be said about Sierra Nevada that hasn't already been said? They nail classic styles so perfectly that it would be easy to drink nothing but Sierra Nevada and never get bored. Their Tumbler seasonal special, described as an "Autumn Brown Ale" rather than a "Fall Brown Ale" which I would have expected, pours a very dark copper, with a red tinge and a light tan head. Again the cocoa notes are there, but this time there is a tobacco smell - you know the kind of tobacco smell from people rolling their own, a smell I love by the way, even though I have never smoked in my life. Tastewise, again chocolate, but lighter than the Williamsburg brew, with caramel and biscuitiness thrown in for good measure, with a crisp hoppy bite in the background. Another beautifully balanced beer that you could drink all night.

Brown Ale in the hands of Sierra Nevada and Williamsburg Alewerks is anything but boring, it is well made, tasty and the kind of beer that makes you more than happy to have another, and then another. All round good stuff, if drinking this stuff makes me an old man, then the old men knew a thing or two.


  1. I don't think I've ever had a boring brown ale. Had gallons of boring brown bitters though.

  2. I have to agree with The Beer Nut - I'm proud of many of our British beers, whatever colour, but many of the brown-ish ones (& a fair few of the rest) are indeed lacking in flavour.

    Some of the ones that look like 'boring brown bitters' are sublime however - e.g. both Hawkshead's & Acorn's Bitter - despite what some with loud voices might say, a red-brown bitter, brewed with a good bit of crystal malt, enough bitterness, some yeast character & importantly a good dose of late hops can be a sublime taste experience.


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