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Question: There seem to be a lot of types of brown ale. How do I figure out which type mine is?
Answer: Brown ale is one of those categories that has been split up into a bunch of pieces. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) recognizes four different styles. Each of them has some distinctive features. However, there is quite a bit of overlap. Trying to figure out which category your brown fits into can be difficult, so here is a run-down on the various types.
All the browns are ale. Hence, characteristics such as a bit of fruity ester are typical. They are typically made with pale malt or malt extract, along with some specialty grains. Brown ales are easy to make, regardless of whether you do extract or all-grain brewing. They typically mature fairly quickly, so you can make a batch without a long lead-time.
The lowest gravity version of brown ale is known as English Mild. Currently, the "mild" term comes from the fact that it is not very bitter. In historic times, the "mild" term arose from the fact that the beer was often served young, before it had a chance to sour. Mild Brown typically has a starting gravity of under 1.040, making it a great low-alcohol session beer. The grain bill has a light dose of dark malt such as chocolate malt or black patent. This will give it a color of 12-30 SRM. Hop bittering is low; no more than 20 IBUs. There should be no hop aroma. The overall flavor is malty, yet light in body. Usually, mild is served on tap, often using a beer engine. Since the style is typically young, there are few commercial examples available. Brains Dark and Bank's Mild are two examples available in England.
The next strongest version is called Northern English Brown Ale. Northern English brown tends to be a bit stronger, though not any darker in color. The malt profile tends to come primarily from darker crystal malts, with very little coming from chocolate or black patent. Sometimes a bit of toasted malt adds a bit of nutty flavor. The bittering level is considerably higher, centered around 25 IBU's. Northern brown should have at most a trace of hop aroma. The two most common commercials examples are Newcastle and Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale.
A slightly darker version is known as Southern English Brown Ale. This version is generally slightly sweeter and fuller-bodied than Northern Brown. The hop level is also a bit higher. Southern Brown is usually made with a blend of dark crystal malts and some chocolate malt. At the high end of the range, Southern brown can overlap with the style definitions for Porter. Like the other two styles, Southern brown has no hop aroma. One commercial example is Oregon Nut Brown Ale.
So what if your brown ale has hop aroma? That would put you into the realm of American brown ale. American brown is based on its near-cousins, American Pale Ale and American Amber. The gravity and bitterness levels are similar to these styles, with an IBU level that can hit 60. Color is on the light side for a dark ale, topping out at about 22. American brown can range from fairly dry, such as Pete's Wicked Brown, or somewhat sweeter, such as Carlsbad Brown.
If you've brewed a brown ale for competition, you might want to compare your numbers with the handy chart below. Don't be afraid to change the subcategory you were planning to enter if you missed your initial target. And, or course, if you have trouble categorizing your beer, bring one or two to the next club meeting. We'll be glad to help sort it out.
Brown Ale Vital Statistics Chart
|Bitterness, IBU||Color, SRM||Hop Aroma|