The ability to deny the evidence of your senses is widespread. There’s the dictator insisting to television interviewers that his people love him, while across the country those long-oppressed people are taking up arms and waving the flag of liberation. And on a much less serious plane, there are people who will insist two beers that look totally different, taste totally different and are produced in totally different ways are variations of the same type.
It’s like setting up a category “horse” and insisting the seahorse and the clothes horse are its sub-categories. That’s slightly more ridiculous than insisting that Newcastle Brown Ale and Mann’s Brown Ale are sub-types of something called “English Brown Ale”. But it involves an identical confusion between “name” and “category”.
I don’t actually have any problems with the idea of “beer styles”. Labels can be very useful. But only if they’re meaningful. When I read that someone is going to be brewing “an English Brown Ale”, I have no idea what sort of beer they are intending to produce.
Look, here’s Newcastle Brown Ale, the urtyp “northern brown ale”, so-called. It’s “brown” only in the sense that if I had a pair of shoes that colour I would probably call them “brown”, if I didn’t call them “tan”. The beer is made – or was made, the method has changed, certainly since production was moved from Tyneside to Tadcaster in North Yorkshire – by mixing a low-gravity beer brewed at about 1030 OG (and sold separately for many years as Newcastle Amber Ale) with a matured, darker (from crystal malt and caramel) high-gravity beer to produce a blend with an abv of 4.7 per cent. The high-gravity beer gives fruity notes to the blend, and a final colour that is much the same as or only a little darker than many traditional English bitters, and certainly paler than, for example, Young’s Winter Warmer (which is a Burton Ale). The sweeter, maltier characteristics are more forward than you’d find in a bitter/pale ale, and there’s less of the hop apparent than would be found even in a Burton: bitterness, I believe is 24 IBU.
Then there’s Mann’s Brown Ale, the urtyp so-called “southern brown ale”. Brown? It’s almost black. That colour comes from roasted malt, and as you’d expect this is a beer with distinct chocolatey, roasty flavours (though less than you’d find in a stout or porter). It also has considerable sweetness (another one of the differences between this style of brown ale and stout – and Newcastle Brown Ale) and almost no hop character (brewers would use Mid-Kents and other non-premium hops for brown ales, and old hops as well, where the aromatic qualities had vanished but the preservative ones remained). Apart from the name also containing the words “brown ale”, Mann’s is utterly different from Newcastle Brown Ale. How can anyone with their brain not in “standby” mode think it works at all to ram these two very dissimilar beers under a single category called “English brown ale”?
To be fair, this is a confusion that goes back 40 years, at least (and before Michael Jackson shoved Newcastle Brown Ale and Mann’s Brown Ale into the same bed, so he’s not completely to blame for the confusion). The Daily Mirror newspaper, in a survey of British beers in 1972, also placed Newcastle Brown Ale and the similar Vaux Double Maxim together under a wide “brown ale” umbrella alongside a shelf-full of “Mann’s-style” dark brown ales such as Greene King Harvest, Truman’s Trubrown and Mann’s Brown Ale itself. Strangely, the Mirror not only failed to spot there were two sets of different-coloured “brown ales”, the hacks never noticed that the paler Newcastle Brown Ale and Double Maxim, were, for British beers, comparatively strong, at 4.5 per cent and 4.2 per cent respectively, while the other, “Mann’s-style”, dark brown ales had an average abv of just 2.7 per cent, with three (including Adnams) as low as 2.4 per cent.
The strength different between the two types of “brown ale” seems to be a post-Second World War phenomenon, however. An analysis of bottled Mann’s Brown Ale in 1909 published in the Chemical News found it to be 5 per cent abv (the same as the brewer’s dinner ale and, admittedly, on or just below average for a pre-First World War British beer). Ron Pattinson went through the records at the London Metropolitan Archive and found Mann’s Brown Ale to be 1048 OG in 1929 and 1054 in 1932 (after the tax on beer had come down, allowing brewers to increase gravities). Other dark brown ales included Trubrown at 1053 in 1932 (just 1032 in 1972), Whitbread at a similar 1052.7 in 1932 (1032.3 in 1972) and Ind Coope at 1052 in 1931 (1032, again, in 1972). I suspect that Newcastle Brown Ale stayed at a higher gravity because its flavour simply could not be recreated at a lower one, owing to the need to get that flavour by blending in a proportion of really high gravity beer (and Double Maxim, also sold primarily in the North East of England, stayed up in gravity to compete), while “dark brown ales” suffered from the general decline in strengths of British beers over the decades.
What Newcastle Brown Ale, in my not at all humble view, should really be called is “strong dark ale”, which would enable it to be put in there with other “strong dark ales” such as Hobgoblin, Black Sheep’s Riggwelter, and Springhead’s The Leveller. But calling it an “English brown ale” and sticking it in the same category as Mann’s is illogical and confusing, and leads to wheelbarrowloads of nonsense: Beer Advocate, for example, claims that “English brown ale” is “spawned from the mild ale”, which is wrong even when applied to Mann’s, but grade one tripe when applied to beers like Newcastle Brown Ale.
That’s not the only tripe talked about brown ale. There seems to be a belief with some drinkers that because several makes have been, and are, called “nut brown ale”, you should be able to find nutty flavours in the beer: I’m really sorry, guys, but I genuinely believe you’re imagining things. “Nut brown ale”, generally “quaffed” , is one of those poetic clichés in use for hundreds of years, but it referred to the colour, not the taste. “Nut brown” is not particularly useful as a colour descriptor anyway: it all depends (if you’ll pardon me) on what colour your nuts are. Hazelnuts are a very different shade of brown from chestnuts. Nor is it a particularly good descriptor for defining a type of beer: in the 1920s, for example, William Younger of Edinburgh was describing its No 3 Scotch Ale as “this glorious Nut-Brown ale”, No 3 being, in fact, a Scotch Ale, northern brother of Burton Ale.
Indeed, it was a Burton brewer, Marston’s, in 1915, that provided the earliest 20th century mention of a “Nut Brown Ale” I have been able to find, and this one was described as a “mild”. My guess is that this was a light (in gravity, since it was called “Lighter than Lager”, which British brewers always regarded as a low-gravity beer) Burton ale, since weaker Burton ales were generally called milds, and if it was a Burton Ale it would have been quite dark: think Young’s Winter Warmer again. Marston’s may have been deliberately trying to drag in some poetic associations by naming its wartime beer “Nut Brown Ale”, because for a very long time “brown ale” was a phrase only found in historic novels and reprints of John Milton’s poem of 1645, L’Allegro (“Then to the Spicy Nut-brown Ale …”). That changed in 1902, when Thomas Wells Thorpe – described by his contemporaries as “a forceful and progressive man” – son of a brewer from Boston in Lincolnshire, invented a new bottled beer at Mann’s Albion Brewery in Whitechapel, East London, where he was managing director. This was Mann’s Brown Ale, and it was promoted (at least according to the brand’s current owners, Marston’s, which acquired it via Refresh UK, which acquired it via the now closed former Watney Mann subsidiary Usher’s of Trowbridge) as “the sweetest beer in London”. It may have been part of a trend by parts of the British market not only towards bottled beers, but also towards sweeter beers, which saw the development of Milk Stout, with its unfermentable lactic sugars. But it was nothing to do with mild ales, sweet(er) though they generally were, because mild ales at the time were generally pale.
This was, indeed, an entirely new type of beer: there are a couple of references to “brown ale” late in Victoria’s reign, including a “mild nut-brown ale” sold on draught at a shilling a gallon by the Wright Brothers brewery in Shoreditch, on the eastern edge of the City of London, and an “XXB Brown”, again 1s a gallon (named in contrast to the same firm’s slightly cheaper “XX Mild Ale”) produced by Barnes & Co’s Tower Brewery in Clapton Park, Easton London in 1901. But for the rest of the 19th century, that’s it. Utter silence on the “brown ale” front. Effectively, there WAS no “brown ale” in the 19th century in the UK.
This is another area for confusion: people see that, for example, William Ellis’s London and Country Brewer in 1734 was talking about “pale and brown ales” and think there’s a link between the brown ales of the 18th century and those of the 20th. But in Ellis’s time, “brown ale” , while it would have been a lightly hopped drink, would have been much stronger than Mann’s Brown Ale ever was, probably above 7 per cent abv, and, depending on how the malt was made, quite possibly smoke-flavoured. The old-style brown ale was still around in 1754, as this rare advertisement for a small London brewer (very close to where Mann’s premises would be, coincidentally) shows: like other small concerns at this time, the Fox brewhouse was a generalist, selling “good strong mild porter” (mild here, of course, meaning new or unaged), a “neat fine Pale Home Brew’d Ale” (this, again would be a lightly hopped though strong brew), “Pale or Amber Small Beer” (this was “beer”, so more heavily hopped, the hops being required because it was also “small”, that is, low in alcohol), “Twopenny” (that would be, I think, an amber ale) and “Brown Ale”. They would also brew “any quantity of keeping Ale or Small Beer” – you don’t, I hope, need me to tell you now why one was different from the other. (Come on, come on – the keeping Ale was strong but lightly hopped, the Small Beer was weaker but more heavily hopped.)
The triumph of porter (a development of what was originally called “brown beer” – because it was heavily hopped), however, mean that the rival, less hoppy brown ale went into decline: Michael Combrune in 1762 said London brown ale was “heavy, thick, foggy, and therefore justly grown to disuse”. By the early decades of the 19th century brown ale seems to have vanished, and the expectation was that anything called “ale” would be pale. Here’s a source I’ve quoted from before, Dr Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopedia from 1830:
Ale is of a lighter colour; it is stronger, sweeter and is less hopped than porter.
When Mann’s reintroduced a beer called “brown ale”, it doesn’t look as if it was any sort of immediate hit: the take-off in bottled brown ale sales does not seem to have started until the 1920s, more than two decades after it was invented. This was after the First World War crash in beer strengths, and when bottled beer sales in general were starting their long rise. In 1924 bottled beers in total, including stouts and bitter ale, made up just 14 per cent or so of Mann’s production. However, this would soon change. The same year, another East End of London brewer, the former porter giant Truman Hanbury and Buxton, brought out its own bottled brown ale. By 1929 this was being sold under the name Trubrown, when the Truman’s house magazine revealed that over the previous five years “the trade has increased by leaps and bounds and brown ale now outstrips all other brand [of the company's bottled beers].” Also in 1924, Whitbread acquired the Forest Hill Brewery Co in South East London, a firm with a reputation for “bright” (filtered) bottled beers, which brought with it the Forest Brown brand. Forest Brown was to grow into one of Whitbread’s best-selling bottled ale brands. Young & Co of Wandsworth, South London brought out a bottled Amber Ale in 1924, but in 1927 the company was forced to announce that “owing to many enquiries for Bottled Ale with more colour than we now supply we have decided to brew our Amber Ale to conform with more general demand,” the result being labelled Brown Amber Ale. The Norwich brewer Steward & Patteson introduced Norfolk Brown Ale in the summer of 1928 with a gravity of 1037.5, and soon announced that demand had “greatly exceeded expectations”.
It was the rise in sales of bottled ales that apparently encouraged Colonel James Porter, head brewery at Newcastle Breweries in the North East of England, to enter the market with a new beer in 1928 that, according to the company’s own histories, took three years to develop. It was called Newcastle Brown Ale, although it was, in fact, deep amber, rather than the chocolate-brown colour of beers such as Mann’s. The beer remained a regional speciality, however, until Newcastle Breweries merged with Scottish Brewers in 1960 to form Scottish & Newcastle Breweries, and Newcastle Brown Ale achieved nationwide distribution.
Mann’s-style brown ale, meanwhile (let’s call it “dark brown ale” for the rest of this piece, to avoid confusion – it’s a more accurate description, and there was even one brand actually called “Dark Brown Ale”, from Beasley’s brewery in Plumstead, South East London), had become a nationwide style, with brewers from the South West to East Anglia, and from Sussex to Alloa making a bottled dark brown ale – often called “nut brown ale”. Bottled brown ale was drunk half-and-half with draught (dark) mild, to give a drink that was livelier than draught mild on its own but cheaper than a pint of bottled beer, and while brown ale and dark mild are properly separate beers, there was certainly an overlap. When the two brewers in Kimberley, Nottinghamshire, Hardy’s and Hansons amalgamated, albeit with a continuation of their separate estates, and the Hansons brewery closed in 1932, Hansons took Hardy’s Nut Brown Ale and relabelled it for its own pubs as Hansons Special Mild. At Benskin’s Watford brewery, on the other hand, in the 1950s the Nut Brown Ale was fractionally weaker than the XX dark mild, at 1032 OG against 1033, and marginally lighter, with a Lovibond colour of 37, a dark brown, against 38 for the mild.
I’m going to get extremely pretentious and say that the most accurate way of conceptualising the links and overlaps between beer styles is to see them, not as a family tree, or a Venn diagram, but as areas in an n-dimensional space, where the different axes or dimensions include strength, bitterness, hoppiness, colour, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, and whatever else you want to include. In that multidimensional space, Newcastle Brown and Mann’s Brown don’t overlap. Dark brown ales DO overlap, however, with dark mild, and to a degree with Burton Ale as well. Digging around for brown ale references, I came across a recipe from the Daily Mirror in 1946 for “Sausages in Beer Sauce” which instructed chefs to add to a pan of frying sausages and onions “about a cupful of brown ale … ordinary mild ale will do, although Burton gives a fuller flavour.”
Most brown ales slumped in strength during and after the Second World War, but there were still a few “double brown ales” around, including Whitbread Double Brown, launched in 1927, still 1054 OG in the 1950s, and sold as “a fine strong ale”; Bateman’s Double Brown; Chestnut Brown Ale from Young’s of Portsmouth, still 4.8% abv even in 1953 (though at 70% attenuation, probably quite sweet; Mitchell & Butler’s Sam Brown Ale; and Ruddle’s Strong Brown, at 1048, first brewed around 1970, making it one of the last new brown ales to be launched for decades. Although a survey in 1973 found some 112 brown ales still being brewed, with 90 per cent of Britain’s regional brewers producing at least one, and 18 making two, in the next 20 years the number of brown ales plummeted, as many regional breweries closed and others stopped making the style: brown ale was what your dad, or your granddad, drank. In 1959, bottled brown ales had been 12 per cent of the total British beer market: that was down to 9 per cent in 1967, and just 4 per cent in 1976 (and that probably included Newcastle Brown Ale, the one beer with “brown ale” in its name that continued to do well).
The success in the US of Pete’s Wicked Ale, supposedly based on Pete Slosberg’s interpretation of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale from Tadcaster, has meant a fair number of American microbrewers making an “English Brown Ale”, though whether they are making a Newcastle-style “brown ale” or a Whitechapel-style dark brown ale, you won’t know until you pour the beer into your glass. Meanwhile in the UK, there has been a small revival of brown ale brewing: I can’t recommend highly enough Old Ember from the Highgate Brewery in Walsall, introduced in 2006, at 6.5 per cent abv a welcome revival of the strong dark brown ale style, brewed with a touch of honey.