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Northern English Brown Ale

My daughters enjoy dining at a certain Mexican food chain restaurant. Visiting there recently, I noticed the restaurant now has Newcastle Brown Ale on draft in place of a classic Mexican beer. At first Mexican food and British beer seemed like an odd pairing to me, but I was willing to give it a try. Some people talk down about Newcastle, saying that due to worldwide brewery consolidation this Northern English brown ale is not the classic British beer that it once was. Regardless, I still find it quite enjoyable, especially served on draft alongside tacos and enchiladas.

Northern English brown ale is a flavorful, malt-focused beer with hints of nuttiness, biscuit, and caramel. It ranges in color from dark amber to a reddish-brown color, with a moderate, off-white to light tan head. It features gentle malt sweetness in an overall balanced beer. Even though the malt sweetness and hop bitterness are evident, both are restrained and neither overwhelms the other. The malt character is full of biscuity and nutty flavors and aromas, and hop character is usually low to none. Brewers are often confused as to the difference between Northern and Southern English brown ales. Northern is drier and more hop bittered than its Southern cousin. Southern has more caramel character, is usually darker in color, and can have some darker malt character. Where Southern can have some subtle coffee and chocolate notes, Northern generally does not. Northern is a moderate alcohol beer, while Southern is always lower in alcohol.

Hops only play a supporting role in this style, with just a balancing bitterness, subtle hop flavor, and little to no hop aroma at all. The finish can be slightly sweet or slightly dry, the body will be around medium, and the overall impression is balanced. Fermentation character often includes low fruitiness, similar in nature to other British beers. Another classic British example is Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale. Other UK and US brewers offer good examples, including Wychwood Hobgoblin, Tröegs Rugged Trail Ale and Samuel Adams Brown Ale.

In any beer, the base malt character plays a big role. In most British beers, it is critical. British pale ale malt is a good choice for Northern English brown as it provides a background biscuit-like malt character that people associate with fine British beers. British pale ale malt is kilned a bit darker (2.5 to 3.5 °L) than the average American two-row or pale malt (1.5 to 2.5 °L) and this higher level of kilning brings out the malt’s biscuity flavors. A few malt companies (Crisp Malting is one) still produce British pale ale malt from cultivars such as Maris Otter using a traditional floor malting method. Warminster also makes a hand-raked British floor malt from Maris Otter that would also work well (although this is harder to come by in the US). The result is malt with a slightly darker color (3.5 to 4.0 °L) and more flavor than other pale ale malts. It is the malt of choice for many English beer fanatics. If you can find mild malt, you can use it as the base for your English brown ales with excellent results. However, you’ll need to adjust your specialty grains to compensate for the darker color of the malt (~5 °L) and the increased toasted, nutty flavor.

These highly modified malts are perfectly suited to single infusion mashes, which is typical for all British beers. Target a mash temperature in the range of 150 to 154 °F (66 to 68 °C). If you are making a lower gravity beer, use the higher end of this temperature range to leave the beer with a bit more body. If you are making a bigger beer, use the lower end of the temperature range to avoid too full of a body, which can limit drinkability.

If you brew with extract, your best choice is an extract made from British pale ale malt. There are some British-style malt extracts currently on the market made from 100% Maris Otter malt and they are an excellent choice for English beers. If you end up using domestic two-row malt or extract made from it, you’ll need to compensate with some additional specialty malts such as Biscuit or Victory, but use restraint. For a 5-gallon (19-L) batch, add no more than 3⁄4 pound (0.34 kg) total.

When brewing Northern English brown your specialty grains can be as simple as a moderate amount of crystal malt, no more than 10% of the grist. Crystal malt adds caramel and other flavor notes to a beer and helps build body. The type of crystal malt also makes a difference. Darker color crystal malts add richer colors, as well as some dark caramel, toasty, roasted and raisin flavors. Lighter color crystal malts add sweeter caramel notes. You can experiment with different colors and amounts in the range of 30 to 150 °L. Keep in mind that in this beer style it is important to show restraint on the crystal malts. You want the beer to have more of a nutty character than a caramel character. That is why the base malt is so important. If you want to build an even nuttier, toasty character, then specialty grains such as Victory (28 °L) and pale chocolate (200 °L) malt will help. Use caution when adding any sort of dark malt to your grist. If you are using malts darker than pale chocolate (200 °L) it can quickly add a strong roasty flavor that is inappropriate for the style, turning your Northern brown into a stout or porter. Overall, keep the goal of drinkability in mind. Too much specialty malt results in a cloying, heavy beer. Depending on the types of specialty malts, the upper limit for this style is about 20%.

While corn, cane sugar and other adjuncts are traditional in brewing many English beers, I usually omit them, unless I’m crafting a big beer and I want to increase wort fermentability, thin the body or reduce the intensity of the base malt flavors. None of those apply in the case of brewing Northern English brown. The fact is simple sugars ferment fully, thin the beer and provide very little in the way of flavor contributions. I’ve seen recipes that use brown sugar, but don’t count on it to add much in the way of flavor. In fact, many style purists believe that adding any kind of sugar to a Northern English brown is inappropriate. Corn and other non-barley adjuncts also reduce the overall malt flavors when used in place of the base malted barley. For me, I want as much base malt flavor as possible, so I do not use any adjuncts in my Northern brown.

Northern English brown is best brewed with English hops, such as East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, Target, Northdown or Challenger, though US hops such as Willamette, can be used for bittering in a pinch. The bittering level is in the range of 20 to 30 IBU. Target enough hop bitterness to provide a near-even balance without overwhelming the malt sweetness. Keep in mind that there are many factors at play in the final impression of bitterness for the drinker. Darker-kilned malts add dryness while crystal malts add sweetness and both affect the perception of bitterness. For Northern brown, a bitterness-to-starting gravity ratio (IBU divided by OG) between 0.4 and 0.6 gives good results. The bulk of the hopping should be as a bittering addition at 60 minutes. If you want a touch of hop flavor, a small addition, around 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 ounce (7 to 14 g) for a 5-gallon (19-L) batch, near the end of the boil is acceptable. Keep in mind this style shouldn’t have more than a low amount of hop flavor and no hop aroma, so don’t use larger additions.

Fermentation creates much of the flavor and aroma in most British beers. “English” yeast strains provide a variety of interesting esters and tend to be low to moderately attenuating, leaving some residual sweetness to balance the bitterness and help fill out the beer. They are also extremely flocculent, which makes them ideal for cask conditioning. These yeasts produce a fairly low level of esters at cool fermentation temperatures (<65 °F/18 °C) and abundant fruity esters and alcohol notes at high temperatures (>70 °F/21 °C). In general, it is better to start in the middle of this range, letting the temperature rise a few degrees, slowly over a couple days. This creates the expected level of esters and keeps the amount of diacetyl in the finished beer at a minimum.

There are quite a few excellent yeast strains available, each providing characteristic yeast flavors and aromas appropriate to English brown ales. In general, try to select English yeast that attenuates in the 70–75% range. White Labs WLP013 London Ale, WLP005 British Ale, WLP023 Burton Ale or Wyeast 1028 London Ale, 1098 British Ale, 1275 Thames Valley Ale and 1335 British Ale II are all good choices. If you prefer using dry yeast, Fermentis Safale S-04 produces good results. Ferment around
68 °F (20 °C) with any of these yeasts.

Restrained carbonation is common in most British beers. Gentle carbonation can enhance the drinkability, filling the drinker with beer, not gas. Target a carbonation level of 2 volumes for bottled, 1.5 volumes for kegged, and just over 1 volume of CO2 for cask conditioned beer.

Serving your English brown ales at cellar temperature, around 50 to 55 °F (10 °C to 13 °C), allows the character of the beer to blossom. Colder temperatures prevent the drinker from picking up the interesting fermentation and malt flavors and aromas of this style, so don’t go below 50 °F (10 °C).

Recipes

Northern English Brown Ale

(5 gallons/19 L,all-grain)
OG = 1.051 FG = 1.013
IBU = 26 SRM = 14 ABV = 5.1%

Ingredients
8.82 lb. (4 kg) Crisp British pale ale malt 3 °L (or similar)
10.6 oz. (300 g) Briess special roast 50 °L (or similar)
5 oz. (141 g) Great Western crystal malt 40 °L (or similar)
5 oz. (141 g) Briess Victory malt 28 °L (or similar)
4 oz. (113 g) Crisp pale chocolate 200 °L (or similar)
3.5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (0.7 oz./20 g at 5% alpha acids) (60 min.)
3.5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (0.7 oz./20 g at 5% alpha acids) (5 min.)
White Labs WLP013 (London Ale), Wyeast 1028 (London Ale) or Fermentis Safale S-04 yeast

Step by Step
I use Crisp Malting’s British Pale Ale malt (made from Maris Otter) as my base grain, but other malts of a similar nature should work well (see some suggestions above). Remember, the bulk of the flavor comes from the base grain, so try to get British pale ale malt.

Mill the grains and dough-in targeting a mash of around 1.5 quarts of water to 1 pound of grain (a liquor-to-grist ratio of about 3:1 by weight) and a temperature of 152 °F (67 °C). Hold the mash at 152 °F (67 °C) until enzymatic conversion is complete. Infuse the mash with near boiling water while stirring or with a recirculating mash system raise the temperature to mash out at 168 °F (76 °C). Sparge slowly with 170 °F (77 °C) water, collecting wort until the pre-boil kettle volume is around 5.9 gallons (22.3 L) and the gravity is 1.044 (10.9 °P).

Once the wort is boiling, add the bittering hops. The total wort boil time is 60 minutes after adding the bittering hops. With 15 minutes left add the Irish moss or other kettle finings and at five minutes left add the last hop addition. Chill the wort to 68 °F (20 °C) and aerate thoroughly. The proper pitch rate is 9 grams of properly rehydrated dry yeast or two packages of liquid yeast.

Ferment around 68 °F (20 °C) until the yeast drops clear. With healthy yeast, fermentation should be complete in a week or less. Allow the lees to settle and the brew to mature without pressure for another two days after fermentation appears finished.

Rack to a keg and force carbonate or rack to a bottling bucket, add priming sugar, and bottle. Target a carbonation level of 1 to 2 volumes depending on your packaging. Serve the finished beer at 50 to 55 °F (10 to 13 °C).

Northern English Brown Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.050 FG = 1.012
IBU = 26 SRM = 14 ABV = 5%

Ingredients
5.73 lb. (2.6 kg) Edme Maris Otter, Muntons or similar pale English liquid malt extract (4°L)
10.6 oz. (300 g) Briess special roast 50 °L (or similar)
5 oz. (141 g) Great Western crystal malt 40 °L (or similar)
5 oz. (141 g) Briess Victory malt 28 °L (or similar)
4 oz. (100 g) Crisp pale chocolate 200 °L (or similar)
3.5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (0.7 oz./20 g at 5% alpha acids) (60 min.)
3.5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (0.7 oz./20 g at 5% alpha acids) (5 min.)
White Labs WLP013 (London Ale), Wyeast 1028 (London Ale) or Fermentis Safale S-04 yeast

Step by Step
I use an English-type liquid malt extract custom made for my homebrew shop from a 100% Maris Otter malt. Always choose the freshest extract that fits the beer style. If you can’t get fresh liquid malt extract, it is better to use dried malt extract (DME) instead.

Mill or coarsely crack the specialty malt and place loosely in a grain bag. Avoid packing the grains too tightly in the bag, using more bags if needed. Steep the bag in about 1 gallon (~4 L) of water at roughly 170 °F (77 °C) for about 30 minutes.

Lift the grain bag out of the steeping liquid and rinse with warm water. Allow the bags to drip into the kettle for a few minutes while you add the malt extract. Do not squeeze the bags. Add enough water to the steeping liquor and malt extract to make a pre-boil volume of 5.9 gallons (22.3 L) and a gravity of 1.043 (10.6 °P). Stir the wort thoroughly to help dissolve the extract and bring to a boil.

Once the wort is boiling, add the bittering hops. The total wort boil time is 60 minutes after adding the bittering hops. With 15 minutes left add the Irish moss or other kettle finings and at five minutes left add the last hop addition. Chill the wort to 68 °F (20 °C) and aerate thoroughly. The proper pitch rate is 9 grams of properly rehydrated dry yeast or two packages of liquid yeast.

Ferment around 68 °F (20 °C) until the yeast drops clear. With healthy yeast, fermentation should be complete in a week or less. Allow the lees to settle and the brew to mature without pressure for another two days after fermentation appears finished.

Rack to a keg and force carbonate or rack to a bottling bucket, add priming sugar, and bottle. Target a carbonation level of 1 to 2 volumes depending on your packaging. Serve the finished beer at 50 to 55 °F (10 to 13 °C).

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