For most beers, I like to keep things simple: three malts and three hops maximum. This is how I approach all of my IPAs. I don’t want the flavors of the finished beer to be muddled, where you can’t pick out specific flavors or aromas because there is too much going on.
My take on American brown ale is not that simple—my Wallops Island contains 10 different malts and grains. I feel like this complex mix is required to achieve the characteristic flavors and aromas associated with the style. Notes of caramel, chocolate, toffee, and bread are key elements to a great brown ale.
The process of brewing an American brown is not any different from brewing an IPA. The biggest difference is the ingredients used. I use a mix of American, British, and continental European malts to give this beer an incredible depth of malt flavor. I have adjusted this recipe probably a dozen times. Each time I make a slight change, I like to taste the different malt I’ll be adding, to make sure it will play well with the others. However, since brewing this beer at Rocket Frog, I have changed the beer only once, and that was to increase the percentage of some of the caramel malts to achieve a little more of that caramel flavor.
Brewing Wallops Island
The brew day starts like any other. I mash in with 1.2 quarts (1.1 l) of hot liquor per pound (454 g) of grain using carbon-filtered city water, targeting a mash temperature of 158°F (70°C). Since there is a high percentage of darker malts in this beer, we don’t use any salts to adjust the water chemistry, and we still get a mash pH between 5.2–5.4. We vorlauf as normal before transferring to the boil kettle. Once we hit our target volume/gravity, we boil for an hour, adding bittering hops at the beginning and flavor hops toward the end. We then pump the wort into the whirlpool kettle, adding hops when it’s halfway through transfer. The wort sits in the whirlpool for about 15 minutes before going through the heat exchanger into a fermentor.
We pitch yeast either in-line from another tank or through a six-inch tri-clamp port at the top. Fermentation occurs at 68°F (20°C) for about two to three weeks. At that point, we drop the temperature to 55°F (13°C) to allow the yeast to settle. (We then use the yeast for other beers or dump it.) After a few more days, we crash the beer to 32°F (0°C), allowing it to condition until a brite tank is free. We’ll then transfer it to a brite tank and carbonate to the appropriate level before packaging in cans and kegs.
Although the beer tastes great fresh, it tastes even better after a couple of months in the package.
Since we opened in May 2018, this beer has won multiple awards, the most distinguished being GABF bronze in 2018 and silver in 2020. I believe what makes this beer stand out is its “true-to-style” nature. It isn’t overly hopped, and it doesn’t have an overly large proportion of roasted malts, so the main flavors you get are the classic caramel, toffee, and chocolate notes you would expect from an American brown ale.
The style is underrepresented in the market, probably because the general public thinks that they would be “heavy” beers, but also because the name of the style doesn’t end in IPA. However, the people who enjoy drinking this style are very particular about the beers that they drink. They’re not the types to follow fads and trends.
Notable Commercial Examples of the Style
Avery Ellie’s Brown Ale (Boulder, Colorado)
Smuttynose Old Brown Dog (Hampton, New Hampshire)
Alewerks Tavern Brown (Williamsburg, Virginia)
Legend Brown Ale (Richmond, Virginia)