NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Northern English Brown is replaced by Style 13B British Brown Ale in Category 13 Brown British Beer, which describe the modern versions.
They are grouped together for judging purposes only since they often have similar flavors and balance, not because of any implied common ancestry.
The similar characteristics are low to moderate strength, dark color, generally malty balance, and British ancestry.
These styles have no historic relationship to each other; especially, none of these styles evolved into any of the others, or was ever a component of another.
The category name was never used historically to describe this grouping of beers; it is our (BJCP) name for the judging category.
“Brown Beer” was a distinct and important historical product, and is not related to this category name.
Northern English Brown Ale Description and History
Northern English Brown Ales are best characterized by the popular Newcastle Brown Ale. They are rich beers, yet remain very approachable.
One of the main characteristics of this beer is its nutty flavor which is derived from the character malts used. Some of the commercial examples use the term “nut brown ale” in their name.
Throughout the ages, all English beers were brown so there was no need to label the the beer as such.
With the advent of coke as a fuel and the drum roaster as a tool, malts became lighter and more distinct in character. The maltster was able to dry and toast the malt without contact with the fuel. This allowed the flavor of the malt to come through in the finished beer.
No longer were the beers harsh and smoky in character. The malsters were able to produce black malts such as black patent, and with the new control over the malt’s color and character, many other malts such as caramel, brown, and pale malt were produced as well.
Today many consider English Brown Ales as simply bottled versions of the English Mild Ale, a low alcohol draft beer that is still popular in the midlands of England today.
In fact, prior to 1927 all bottled versions of dark mild were marketed as brown ale. Many believe that the blueprint for today’s brown ale came from the Scottish brewmaster from Newcastle, Jim Porter.
He was tasked to create a beer which could fill the demand for bottled beers. So, in 1927 he created his now famous Newcastle Brown for the working class, a beer that was more drinkable than the previous brown ales with a nutty character, slight caramel notes, and a dry finish.
Today, most brown ales in England are similar to the original Newcastle recipe, although the beers from the south (Southern English Brown Ales or London Ales) are somewhat sweeter, darker, less hoppy and less alcoholic.
Brown ales just about died as a style with the surge in production of porters and stouts. They faded even more with the advent of pale English ales. Had Newcastle not revived the style in the 1920’s, it may have faded to complete obscurity.
Important factors to consider when brewing a Northern English Brown ale are the balance of flavors and aromas, and the proper use of English base malt in the grist.
The common biscuit flavor of many English beers needs a good English pale ale malt as the base. The other common flavor, nuttiness, can be imparted by the use of specialty malts such as Munich, Victory and pale chocolate.
Care should be exercised with the use of caramel malts in this beer. It does not have as much caramel flavor as its Southern English Brown cousin.
The use of just enough English hops to balance the malt character is very important in this beer’s drinkability and style. East Kent Goldings is a very popular choice of bittering and flavor hops for this beer.
References: Information for this article about Northern English Brown ales was taken from the 2008 and 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Brewing Classic Styles 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, written by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer, the article in All About Beer Magazine entitled Basic Brown by K. Florian Kemp, published in May 2008 in Vol. 29, No. 2, the article Brown Ale: Style of the Month which appeared in Brew Your Own Magazine in July 1997, and the Beersmith Home Brewing Beer Blog entitled Brown Ale Recipes: Brewing Styles written by Brad Smith and posted July 9, 2008 on Beersmith.com