Monday, 15 October 2007

Brown Ale

Brown Ale is usually split into two major substyles: Southern and Northern. These are usually typified by respectively Mann's Brown Ale and Newcastle Brown Ale. Or, put simply, Southern sweet and weak, Northern dry and strong.

But when and why were Brown Ales classified this way? The first question is pretty easy to answer: by Michael Jackson in his World Guide to Beer. As for the why, well probably because there were by then a dwindling number of examples and the two best-known beers called Brown Ale were pretty different from each other.

Does this differentiation have an historic basis. Were brewers making two distinct variations of Brown Ale?

Maybe the Whitbread gravity book can give us an insight into what Brown Ales were around just after WW II. There are a lot of Brown Ale entries. They have a good geographic spread, too, ranging from Scotland to the south coast. Here, take a look:

You'll notice that they are a fairly heterogenous bunch. Their gravity ranges from 1025.6 to 1070.6. The degree of attenuation is just a diverse: low 57%, high 85%. As would be expected, two of the stronger, drier examples are from the Northeast: Newcastle Brown Ale and Vaux Double Maxim. But in amongst them are a couple from Portsmouth. It's hard to get more southern than the south coast. Hang on a minute, amongst the weak, sweet ones are northern beers: Sam Smiths and Tennants of Sheffield.

I'm not going to start preaching. Look at the numbers and draw your own conclusions. Yes, there are beers like Newcastle Brown (the beer itself is there) and Mann's. But there's also just about everything inbetween (and even above and below) those two.


Matt said...

Thanks for the info.
You have answered a question I have always wondered about.

My wife thanks you even more as frankly she was tired of hearing about whether there was a Northern Brown/Southern Brown.

John Clarke said...

Another myth of sorts is that Welsh beer was generally quite weak by this time - and yet look at the potent little number from Vale of Neath. Indeed - when I first saw the entry I had one of those "well, what on earth was all that about then?" moments.

Ron Pattinson said...


a good point. There's pretty much a full set of Hancock bottled beers from 1951:

Hancocks Export Stout 1013,4 1044,4
Hancocks Bitter Ale 1010,3 1031,2
Hancocks Strong Ale 1010 1034,3
Hancocks Oatmeal Stout 1010,1 1037
Hancocks Amber Ale 1013,1 1040,3
Hancocks Nut Brown Ale 1010,2 1039,3
Hancocks Extra Stout 1006,3 1037,1
Hancocks 55 Export Ale 1020,9 1055,7
Hancocks 77 Export Stout 1010,3 1045,9

It must have been one of the largest Welsh breweries at the time. It's beers (with the exception of the puny Strong Ale)look no weaker than average. In fact the Nut Brown Ale is at the higher end of the range.

While I'm talking of Strong Ale, you might be interested to know that I've found the Hole's Strong Ale. It's on a page with just Strong Ales, listed in descending order of gravity. It's the third strongest at 1080.7 and about 7.5% ABV. At onlt 1/2d a nip, it's also one of the cheapest.

Ron Pattinson said...


a beer I accidentally left out of the table was Vaux Maxim:

1009.7 1033.5 2.97% ABV 71.04% attenuation

Doesn't look much like a "Northern-style" Brown Ale, does it?

To me, the split looks more like between Double and Single Brown that any North/South thing. Barclay Perkins and Whitbread both brewed a beer called DB in the 1930's with a gravity of over 1040.

Zythophile said...

Ron, I haven't done an abv/colour comparison yet, but of the 46 beers listed, almost two thirds have OGs between 1029 and 1033, so "brown ale was generally weak" looks a reasonable statement to me.

I think, too, that just because the "Mann's" style brown ale is called "Southern brown ale" to distinguish it from the "Newcastle Brown" style doesn't mean Northern brewers wouldn't have brewed Mann's style beers as well: the two styles. Mann's and Newcastle are clearly very different beers unfortunately both described as brown ales, and there has to be another adjective attched to differentiate between them (I've alays thought the Newcastle style was more like an amber ale, anyway, but there you go. And yes, Im aware there was also a Newcastle Amber Ale.)

Unless anybody's got a better idea, Southern and Northern look adequate enough distinguishers to me, even if not totally accurate geographically.

Incidentally, Whgitbread looks to have invented the Double Brown style in 1927 as a strong beer, 2d a bottle more expensive than IPA, and lying somewhere betwen brown ale and stout - see An Uncommon Brwer by Berry Ritchie, p97.

Ron Pattinson said...

Zythophile, I was surprised at the amount of variation in both OG and attenuation. It looks to me as if there was quite a wide spectrum of flavour in Brown Ale.

Wasn't Newcastle Brown first brewed sometime around 1927? Newcastle Amber, apart from the colour, is like a weak Brown Ale.

If you asked me what you should call stronger Brown Ales, I would say Double Brown. Certainly if you take Vaux as an example. They brewed two Brown Ales called Maxim and Double Maxim. It's a bit weird to call the one a "southern-style" and one a "northern-style" Brown Ale when they were both brewed in Sunderland.

Zythophile said...

Mmm, well, I'm not certain that Whitbread Double Brown and Newcastle Brown sit in the same family, whereas I am certain that NB, Double Maxim, Sam Smith's later Nut Brown Ale at 5pc abv (the one that inspired Pete Brown's Wicked Ale and the whole American Brown Ale class) and the Fed Brewery's Strong Brown Ale, which became High Level brown ale, ARE all members of the same family, and they all come from the North of England ...

The story of Double Maxim, allegedly, is that Vaux, brewed a special beer called Maxim in 1901 on the return to England of one of the family, who had commanded a Maxim gun detachment in the Northumberland Hussars. Maxim was originally a strong amber-brown ale, but Sunderland legend says the strength was quickly reduced because local landlords complained their customers kept falling asleep. However, in 1938 the strength was increased again, to 4.7 per cent abv, and the name of the beer changed to Double Maxim, evidently in response to the challenge from Newcastle Brown (which, you're right of course, was introduced 11 years earlier). Did they carry on brewing "ordinary" Maxim after they started making Double Maxim?

Ron Pattinson said...

Zythophile, you make some interesting points again.

I can see one difference between Newcastle Brown and Whitbread Double Brown - Newcastle Brown is a good bit paler. In other respects - OG, FG, attenuation - Whitbread DB isn't that different. It resembles Double Maxim even more closely, except for the colour.

1933 Whitbread DB OG 1055.2, FG 1014.5, 5.09% ABV, 73.73% attenuation, colour 17 + 40

I only have an OG for the 1953 Whitbread DB - 1053.8. Which isn't that different from in 1933.

Vaux were still brewing single Maxim in 1950:

Nov 7 1950 Vaux & Co Maxim Ale OG 1033.5,FG 1009.7, 2.97% ABV, 71.04% attenuation, colour 17 + 40
Nov 7 1950 Vaux & Co Double Maxim Ale OG 1048.7, FG 1011.2, 4.69% ABV, 77.00% attenuation, colour 1.5 + 40

The older Sam Smith's Nut Brown doesn't look much like the current beer:

Feb 13 1942 Samuel Smith Taddy's Nut Brown Ale OG 1033.4,FG 1009.8, 2.95% ABV, 70.66% attenuation
Dec 3 1948 Samuel Smith Taddy Brown Ale OG 1032.5, FG 1013.8, 2.34% ABV, 57.54% attenuation

Talking of of Federation High Level Briown Ale, I've just found an entry for that:

Mar 4 1955 Northern Clubs Federation High Level Brown Ale OG 1053.6, FG 1016.5, 4.64% ABV, attenuation 69.22%, colour 75

I've also found another Northeast Brown Ale:

Mar 4 1955 Alnwick Brewery Co Brown Ale OG 1062.5, FG 1020.6, 5.24% ABV, attenuation 67.04%, colour 110

Though it's hard to make direct comparisons because the system used for denoting colour is different in these two entries, both of these are darker than Newcastle Brown and the Alnwick beer is probably about the same colour as the Whitbread DB.