Basically the base beer responsible for spawning most of the other English styles, English Brown Ale is without question one of my favorite beers for sessioning. With its signature being lightly roasted and caramelized malts, and low to moderate alcohol content, this beer was originally designed to serve the masses and it still serves that purpose today.
What is English Brown Ale?
English Brown Ale got its start in the late 1600's, when it was referred to then as Mild Ale. That term refers to the lack of hop bitterness, for example "less hoppy" than a pale ale and not quite as strong. The mildness also referred to the fact that the beer was young, and hadn't yet developed the moderate sourness that aged batches had.
The History of English Brown Ale
The term, and style, of English Brown Ale evolved from Mild in the 1800's, but then died out as brewers started to shy away from using 100% brown malt as a base. Pale malt was cheaper because of its higher yield, and that was used as a base for all beers, including Porter and Stout. The Mann brewery was responsible for bringing traditional brown ale back at the end of the 19th century, with a beer of the same name, while Whitbread and the ever popular Newcastle shortly followed suit. At this point, and leading up to today, this beer style is split between Southern English Brown and Northern English Brown. The Southern English Brown style is darker, sweeter, and lower in alcohol than their Northern cousins; unfortunately, outside of the UK, very few commercial examples exist, with Manns commanding over 90% of their market share in Britain. Northern English Browns are much more prevalent, are drier and more hop-oriented, and display a nuttier character than a caramel one.
English Brown Ale Characteristics
Since I'm sort of covering 2 styles here, I'll just list the general attributes of English Brown Ale you'll be experiencing. Their aroma is light and malty-sweet with a nutty, caramel, or toffee-like character, along with some dark fruity esters and a light hops lingering around. They're dark amber to reddish brown in color (although some can be almost black), but they all should be clear with a low to moderate white to light tan head. This style has a caramel-like malty sweetness with a relatively dry and malty finish, with hints of biscuits, dark fruit, and even coffee. Bitterness is medium to low, with hop flavor low but evident, depending on what you're drinking. Their mouthfeel is medium-light to medium with moderate carbonation and a smooth texture.
English Brown Ale Food Pairings
Meats of almost any kind are terrific with English Brown Ale. Cured meat, red meats, short ribs, pork, steak, sausage, and even salmon (especially smoked) are great with this style. The caramelized malts shake hands with the caramelization on the meat for a great pairing, so don't be shy to fire up that grill or get out the roasting pan. The sweeter examples of this style are terrific with seafood and all kinds of game, and it also serves as a great base for chili, beef stew, or even minestrone. Cheeses are another win with English Brown Ale, especially Gorgonzola, Stilton, Gouda, or a crumbly Cheshire. Desserts aren't the best to place on the table with this beer, but you can't go wrong with possibly a slice of almond or maple-walnut cake, or a slab of pecan pie.
Another style that I stated before as one of my favorite session beers, English Brown Ales are a perfect example for turning onto some friends I know you have that live and die for macro lager. It is a legendary crossover beer, and also one for having 3 or 4 of at your local bar where you can still drive home and not feel as though you're taking your life into your own hands. Wychwood Hobgoblin, one of my top 5 and one of my favorite beers of all time, was one that I had at my wedding... I cherish it that much. I hope soon you will too!