One of my favorite things about drinking beer is being surprised. Often those surprises come when brewers re-interpret historical styles, riding a line between tradition and the creation of something entirely new.
In recent years, I’ve been particularly struck by adaptations of old British styles by breweries known for their aggressively hopped IPAs. I think of Old Man, an Extra Special Bitter from Massachusetts’s Tree House. Or Quid, an English Bitter, a recent one-off collaboration between Goodfire and Oxbow. Or Nice One Sonny, an ESB from Bissell Brothers – and tribute to the brilliant soccer star Son Heung-min – from a couple years back. So when I recently came across Bissell’s Bravura, a brown ale first released in November, I was curious, but not necessarily optimistic. Modern brewery plus older style? Check. But surely there are inherent limitations to what a brewer could do with the beer style equivalent to cuffed and pleated khakis.
When I drank it for the first time, I wasn’t really sure what I was tasting. It seemed like it was doing normal brown ale things – some nuttiness, some chocolate, some caramel and well balanced. But would a brown ale doing normal brown ale things provoke me to stand up, walk around my house mumbling with glass-in-hand, updating my aggressively uninterested partner every five minutes that it was still, indeed, confusingly delicious? Or deliciously confusing? More research was in order; the next day, my fridge was browner than mud season.
Up until the late 1700s, all beer drinkers were drinking it brown – and unless you were in Bavaria, it was an ale. Only with the advent of coke fires in malting kilns, which allowed for better fire control, could maltsters produce something other than dark and smoky malts. The possibility of pale malts enabled the development of the English pale ale, which was more expensive to brew, and thus became associated with emergent middle classes in industrial Britain. The old browns – along with their cousin, the porter – would become the beer of the working classes. And while brown ales from craft breweries are hardly working-class, the style itself retains a certain salt-of-the-earth symbolism.
In general, British brown ales are malty, with caramel, nutty, toffee or light chocolate characteristics – maltier than an English Bitter, less roasty than an English Porter. One of the more prominent examples of this style among Maine brewers is Foundation’s Burnside, with its sweet maltiness, caramelized sugar and hints of apple-like fruity esters.
American Brown Ale, as one might assume, is louder than its British counterpart: richer, hoppier and often darker in color. One of Maine’s best is Davistown Brown (6%) from Lake St. George Brewing Company in Liberty. Chocolate, caramel and coffee abound, with a silky mouthfeel and a little sweetness in the balanced finish. It’s a beer with a long backhistory of its own. Danny McGovern launched the original Lake St. George Brewing Co.with Dirigo Ale, a brown ale that debuted at The Great Lost Bear in 1993. The brewery closed a couple years later, but was reincarnated, like Dirigo Ale in the form of Davistown, in 2017.
Cordwood, from Ellsworth’s Fogtown Brewing, pushes the American brown into even darker territory. Weighing in at 5.6%, it is deep brown in color, with big roasty coffee and chocolate aromas. Sweet maltiness, with some chocolate and some citrus, takes us to a sweet and fruity finish. Really massive flavor for a relatively small beer.
It’s that malty sweetness that also makes the brown ale a great partner to many foods: spicy Mexican, smoked meats, the char of a steak, mushrooms, cheeses and beef stews all benefit from this humble but sturdy beer.
But I wouldn’t call Bissell’s Bravura humble or sturdy. Many brown ales later, with my “research” nearly done, I circle back to try to make sense of things. A dark amber with a khaki head. That nuttiness is still there, with some caramel and milk chocolate. But now, particularly as it warms up, those hops are popping – a sunny orange citrus to complicate things. It’s sweet and dry, dark and bright – seeming contrasts that aren’t in tension, but harmony. I struggle to wrap my mind around it. But then, maybe that’s what makes me love it in the first place: the sense of surprise and mystery that, as an experience, defies description.
Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.