Note: In the current (2021) BJCP Style Guidelines, American Brown Ale is in category 19C which contains modern American amber and brown warm-fermented beers of standard strength that can be balanced to bitter. Category 19 Amber and Brown American Bee
Image from Wiki Commons
As with most American-style beer categories that have the word “American” tacked on to the front of the description, brown ale’s roots can be traced back to Europe and inevitably England. Its two closest siblings can be traced back to the 18th century when porters and stouts were very popular in England and would often be called “brown ales”.
With the rise of pale ale, the brown ales all but vanished from the market in the mid-19th century and fell out of favor as a beer variety enjoyed by beer drinkers in the UK. By the start of the 20th century, there were no brown ales available on the market.
It wasn’t until the innovative brewers at Scottish and Newcastle breweries launched their own distinctive brown beer; the world famous Newcastle Brown, that the other British brewers sat up and took notice and started to brew this type of beer again.
Newcastle Brown, by the way, remains one of the most, widely-sold bottled beers in the world today in its distinctive pint sized bottle.
The Origins of American Brown Ale
Some of the early colonists to America tried to recreate these dark beers, often adding molasses to the brew, but brown ales remained pretty unknown in the US until the start of the craft beer revolution in the 1980s.
During the beginning of the craft beer movement in America, the USA fell in love with brown ales. Prior to this period, most were just imitations of the English Brown Ale style like Newcastle or other sweet or dry Yorkshire versions.
One of the first commercial versions to better suit the tastes of craft beer drinkers in the US was created by a brewer named Pete Slosberg at Pete’s Brewing Company.
Pete’s Wicked Ale was born. It was darker and hoppier than the English examples, emphasizing its signature Brewer’s Gold hops for aroma, and it soon became loved by craft beer drinkers. The style soon spread across the country and became a favorite beer in many microbreweries and brewpubs.
Today, the style can vary widely from very hoppy and bitter beers to those with a more subtle hop profile. Some have some residual sweetness and a rich malt profile to balance the hops while others finish dry, allowing the hops to shine through.
Texas Brown Ale – The Pioneers of American Brown Ale
It was the Texas homebrewers that wanted to copy the style of English brown ales who really kickstarted the American brown ale category. Of course, Texas being Texas, everything had to be bigger and bolder than anything the English had ever produced.
One story goes that California homebrewers were making a dark brown ale with John Bull Dark Malt Extract, crystal and chocolate malts, and lots of local hops. It was a very popular kit and began winning many local and regional California homebrew competitions.
The owner of DeFalco’s Home Wine and Beer Supplies in Houston found the beer on a trip to California. He was also a member of the FOAM Rangers, the local Houston homebrew club which puts on The Dixie Cup, one of the country’s largest and arguably most unique homebrew competitions.
In the early 1990s, there weren’t as many styles as there are now, so The Dixie Cup decided to include a category called “California Dark.” It was an immediate success for the competition. As sometimes happens, the AHA picked up on the popularity of the style but for some reason named it “Texas Brown Ale” in honor of the first competition in which it was in its own category, The Dixie Cup.
Many still call these beers by the name “Texas Brown Ale”, but the style seems to be different. Texas Brown Ales are considered bigger versions of the style.
Other US brewers have soon followed suit but tried to tame the beast that was Texas Brown Ale to create the distinct style we now know as American Brown Ale.
Tasting Notes for an American Brown Ale
For most beers in this style, the toasty, caramel, and chocolate notes will be of medium intensity in both flavor and aroma.
These beers have low to medium hop flavor and aroma with medium hop bitterness of 18 to 35 IBUs. Citrussy American hops for dry-hopped aromas can also be used in this style of beer
The color range of an American brown ale should be somewhere in the brown spectrum ranging from a light amber to an almost black mud color. The head or foam of the beer should be a bone ivory to light khaki with a low to medium volume.
Some important factors to consider when brewing an American Brown at home is that it is a very “American” beer. This means you must use a clean American yeast and American hop varieties for the characteristic citrusy and fruity character.
If you decide to use an English yeast, ferment at the lower end of the yeast’s tolerance to restrain the fruity esters. The malt recipes should include crystal and other dark malts that provide the malty sweetness of typical caramel, toasty and/or chocolate flavors.
Examples of the American Brown Ale style include:
- Face Down Brown from Telluride Brewing Company
- Braggarts Brown from Diebolt Brewing Company
- Bonfire Brown Ale from Saugatuck Brewing Company
- Davy Brown Ale from Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company
- End of the Trail Brown Ale from Blue Corn Brewery