Ode to a Brown Ale (with apologies to Robert Burns and Jethro Tull)

When I used to judge at local and regional home brew competitions more frequently, I would inevitably hear other judges, while waiting for their category assignments, muttering prayers under their breath – “Please, not Brown Ales, anything but Brown Ales…” It was the common perception, among all the trained and educated palates gathered there, that the humble Brown Ale is the most boring category to judge. There are a couple of reasons for this: it’s not an exciting beer, generally, no big alcohol, no huge hops, no distinctive malt profile, nothing special in the yeast… And also, they all tend to taste pretty much the same. In the world of beer, Brown Ale is a working class, under-the-radar brew, a session beer, an oft overlooked gem in the rough.

It can be a wonderful beer, to brew and to drink, however. It’s all in how you approach it.

Today’s recipe is a minor adaptation of a recipe published in my book (North American Clone Brews). It’s designed to replicate one of my favorite ales, Griffon Brune, brewed by one of my favorite breweries, McAuslan Brewing in Montreal. This is a mild English Brown, semi-sweet, with dried fruit and chocolate notes in both the aroma and flavor. I changed the hops, substituting Whitbread Goldings and Mt. Hood for the Willamette, and used a White Labs yeast instead of the Wyeast I suggested in the original recipe.

Griffon Brune
5 gallons, all-grain

Ingredients:

  • 6 lbs. mild ale malt
  • 8 oz. carapils
  • 4 oz. chocolate malt
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 5 AAU Whitbread Goldings hop pellets (1 oz. @5% aa)
  • 1.9 AAU Mt. Hood hop pellets (1/2 oz. @3.8% aa)
  • White Labs British Ale yeast (WLP005)
  • 1/3 cup corn sugar (for priming)
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar (for priming)

Procedure:
The night before brewing, crush the mild, carapils and chocolate malts. On Brew Day, heat 13 quarts of water to 165°F, mash crushed grains in to strike a temperature of 156°F, hold 60 minutes. Heat 15 quarts to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge. Collect 24 quarts sweet wort, add brown sugar, bring to boil. At onset of boil, add Whitbread Goldings hops. Boil 30 minutes, add Mt. Hood hops. Boil another 30 (60 total), turn off heat. Chill wort to 80 – 85°F, take a hydrometer reading, pour into sanitized fermenter, pitch British Ale yeast, seal and ferment. Rack to secondary after 8 – 10 days, bottle after another 14 days, priming with corn sugar and brown sugar. Bottle condition 10 – 15 days.

OG 1047
25.8 IBU

Brewing notes: This is one of my favorite styles to start off new brewers with – it’s relatively easy to design the recipe, takes less time to ferment and condition, hence the brewer gets rewarded much sooner than with other beers. As this is an all-grain version,  however, this particular recipe is not the best place to start. To brew the same beer, roughly, with extracts and some steeped grains, here are the changes:

Ingredients:
1 lb. mild ale malt, toasted (375°F for 15 minutes, on a cookie sheet)
8 oz. carapils
4 oz. chocolate malt
2 cups brown sugar
4 lbs. unhopped amber malt extract syrup or 3 lbs. amber DME
hops and yeast as above

The night before brewing, boil and chill 3.25 gallons water. Toast mild ale malt, crush grains. On Brew Day, steep grains in a mesh bag, in 2 gallons cold water. Gradually heat to 160 – 170°F, hold 30 – 40 minutes. Remove grains, raise heat to boiling. Add malt extract and brown sugar, stir in well to avoid burning on. When the wort returns to boil, follow boiling and hop schedule as above. Chill wort, pour into sanitized fermenter, top up with enough of the pre-boiled and chilled water to make 5 gallons. When total wort is at 80° – 85°F, pitch yeast, ferment etc. as above.

A tip for extract brewers: it probably does not make sense for the extract brewer to invest in a wort chiller, as you are only boiling 1/3 to 1/2 of the volume that an all-grain brewer is boiling. However, quick chilling to yeast pitching temperature is crucial to a healthy fermentation, and to avoiding bacterial infection in your beer. I strongly advise pre-boiling a couple gallons of water and chilling it overnight – by boiling it, you are effectively sanitizing it, and the addition of the cold water will bring your wort down very quickly to a manageable temperature.

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