Brown ale is a style of beer with a dark amber or brown color. The term was first used by London brewers in the late 1600s to describe their products, such as mild ale, though the term had a rather different meaning than it does today. Eighteenth-century brown ales were lightly-hopped and brewed from 100% brown malt.
Today there are brown ales made in several regions, most notably England, Belgium and North America. Beers termed brown ale include sweet, low alcohol beers such as Manns Original Brown Ale, medium strength amber beers of moderate bitterness such as Newcastle Brown Ale, and malty but hoppy beers such as Sierra Nevada Brown Ale.
In the eighteenth century, British brown ales were brewed to a variety of strengths, with gravities ranging from around 1.060º to 1.090º. These beers died out around 1800 as brewers moved away from using brown malt as a base. Pale malt, being cheaper because of its higher yield, was used as a base for all beers, including Porter and Stout.
The term "brown ale" was revived at the end of the nineteenth century when London brewer Mann introduced a beer with that name. However, the style only became widely-brewed in the 1920s. The brown ales of this period were considerably stronger than most modern English versions. In 1926, Manns Brown Ale had a gravity of 1.043º and an ABV of around 4%. Whitbread Double Brown was even stronger, 1.054º and more than 5% ABV. The introduction of these beers coincided with a big increase in demand for bottled beer in the UK.
In the 1930s some breweries, such as Whitbread, introduced a second weaker and cheaper brown ale that was sometimes just a sweetened version of dark Mild. These beers had a gravity of around 1.037º.
After World War II, stronger brown ales, with the exception of a handful of examples from the northeast of England, mostly died out. The majority were in the range 1.030-1.035º, or around 3% ABV, much like Manns Brown Ale today.
North American brown ales trace their heritage to American home brewing adaptations of certain northern English beers.
English brown ales range from beers such as Manns Original Brown Ale , which is quite sweet and low in alcohol, to northeastern brown ale such as Newcastle Brown Ale, Double Maxim and Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale.
They range from deep amber to brown in color. Caramel and chocolate flavors are evident. Brown ales from northeastern England tend to be strong and malty, often nutty, while those from southern England are usually darker, sweeter and lower in alcohol. North American brown ales are usually drier than their English counterparts, with a slight citrus accent and an aroma, bitterness, and medium body due to American hop varieties. Fruitiness from esters are subdued. When chilled to cold temperatures, some haziness may be noticed.
North American commercial examples include Pete's Wicked Ale, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale, Bell's Best Brown Ale, Abita Turbo Dog, Duck-Rabbit Brown Ale, Sam Adams Brown Ale, Saint Arnold Brewing Company Brown Ale, Michigan Brewing Company Nut Brown Ale, and Brooklyn Brown Ale.