For this month’s Session, Joe Tindall over at The Fatal Glass of Beer admits Brown Ale has a bit of an image problem. While the color brown often conveys comfort and relaxed earthiness, it also signals something worn, tired, and faded. There are also brown things that….well, you probably don’t want to think about while drinking beer. So it’s not too surprising that Brown Ales are some of the least sexy styles of beer. That’s too bad, since I like a good Brown and when I look back on my relationship with Brown Ales, they’ve been there along the way as I’ve made new discoveries in beer.
Such as the time back in my graduate school days at The Ohio State University in the early 90’s, roaming the aisles at the Big Bear grocery store, I spied bottles of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale high up on the beer shelf. Back then, my experience with any beer that wasn’t a straw yellow Lager was pretty much limited to Michelob Dark. I couldn’t help notice that one bottle of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale cost about as much as a six-pack of Bud and was imported from some historic looking brewery from the UK, so I figured it must be good. In that time of great exploration in my life, I picked up a bottle. Trying it later one night in my dorm room, I found it, well, different. It was not some secret ambrosia and with my palate molded by light Lagers, it took effort to finish. Later on, I’d take a bottle or two to poker games to look cool and sophisticated as my friends sucked down cans of Natty Light. I was a bit of twit back then, and probably only grudgingly shared my Nut Brown Ale with anyone who asked to try it. Another Samuel, Samuel Adams, started showing up on beer shelves, which had a distinct advantage over Samuel Smith in that it was significantly cheaper, very important in those days when instant ramen noodles with frozen vegetables was my usual dinner.
Fast forward twenty years and 2,000 miles westward. I’ve been living in and around San Jose, California for ten years. By then, I’d discovered discovered so many great breweries in Northern California, although most of them are concentrated around the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, or bucolic places like Mendocino County or Santa Rosa. San Jose and it’s Silicon Valley surroundings was considered a brewery backwater. Then one day, I discovered a new brewery in San Jose called Strike Brewing and one of their first beers was simply called “Brown”. (They now call it “Lumberbuster Brown”). Light, tight, and a little nutty, I found it to be a refreshing Brown from a brewery specializing in sessionable ales. Strike’s no-nonsense straightforward style was equally refreshing at that time in Northern California, full of big booming IPA’s and Imperial everythings. Strike Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich was a minor baseball pitcher before co-founding Strike and his beers suggest he threw batters nothing but a steady diet of solid fastballs. Strike was one of the earliest entrants into San Jose’s small but growing brewing scene, a group of breweries which reflects Silicon Valley’s tradition of both innovation and laser-focus on process. Being a Silicon Valley techie, it is with pride that I can now enjoy hometown brews from Strike and plenty of other new local breweries.
Five years later, late last summer, I’m chatting which Calicraft’s Brewmaster Blaine Landberg in the back of his newly opened taproom. I’m interviewing him for an article in a local food magazine, and he’s eagerly handing me sample after sample of each of his beers, telling me all about them like they’re his kids. It was not wise to interview him on an empty stomach. He gets to Calicraft’s Oaktown Brown which at 6.7% abv, 70 ibu, which is not your traditional Brown Ale, and tastes far more balanced and composed than those numbers suggest. We both lament that Brown Ales are underappreciated. Landberg’s idea behind Oaktown Brown was to give the style the royal treatment, adding oak at fermentation and plenty of Cascade hops, creating a woody, vanilla, and slightly red wine character to the big roasty flavors. I don’t know how he keeps all those big flavors at the right volumes but he does it this complex brew I find myself sipping effortlessly.
One could derisively call Brown Ales the cockroaches of beer, continuing to persist despite commercially eradicative indifference. The thing about Brown Ales are, whether in traditional form, modern renditions, or contemporary reworkings, they have their passionate believers.