The second beer I ever brewed was an American Brown Ale. It remains, to this day, one of the best beers I’ve ever brewed, if only by virtue of the fact that it benefitted from the short (but essential) list of improvements recommended by our proto-homebrew cub, and as a result was markedly better than my first batch, an adequate-but-uninspiring ESB. I still remember opening the first bottle of it and getting a big punch in the nose of cocoa, grain, and a hops aroma that was so unexpected and perfect that I still use (and recommend) it to this day, ten years later, even though I don’t quite understand how we got there! American Brown Ale is a classic of the early craft and homebrewing world, and in a perfect world you’d have a great version of it on your taps at all times.
The description of this beer in the BJCP guidelines (both 2008 and 2015, so it’s not a recent change!) seems to be a lot more tame than most versions of the style I see on taps and judging tables. I mention that only to draw the contrast between maltier versions of this beer and this one, which while on the “high” side in many respects (color, roast, maybe hops), still meets the general guidelines. ABA features medium-high malt flavor, often in the form of caramel, toffee, and chocolate. It also features a fair amount of bitterness and hops flavor, but this is where the guidelines start to get a little confusing: they specifically state that the hops character “complements and enhances” the maltiness, which itself can be moderately high, but then indicates relatively low levels of bitterness and hops flavor. To thine own self be true, but I aim for more hops impression than the guidelines would think is proper, because not doing so would require me to dial back on the maltiness to an unacceptable degree, just to get a modicum of balance in the finished product. Otherwise, there’s not much complexity in the style: a “malty but hoppy” brown ale, with lots of room for interpretation!
We begin with nine pounds of Maris Otter, since a bready base is just what the doctor ordered (and will help prevent the roasted malts from being too aggressive). To that we add half a pound each of Caramunich and British Crystal 65. In this case, I strongly recommend going with the British Crystal instead of a general 60L Caramel malt, because we really want that rich caramel-and-toffee flavor. The Caramunich will help in that regard, too! For roast, I like somewhere between 8 and 16 ounces of chocolate malt (425L). Why the range? Because it’s up to you just how roasty you want this beer to come out. I go to the high end and get a darker, drier, roastier product – but if you’re not as big a fan of the dark chocolate flavors, then maybe dial it back a bit. That grist should get you to right about 1.060, which will add a modest but noticeable amount of alcohol.
Hopping is where this beer really shines, though, then and now. One ounce of Hallertau for bittering at 60 minutes should add about 15-20 IBUs. Then, at ten minutes (and in a dry hop addition) I add a combination of Liberty and Crystal hops, a blended ounce for each addition. Why those? Well, it was originally because those were the hops I had. Since then, though, I’ve found that the Liberty/Hallertau/Crystal combination results in a flavor like sarsaparilla, especially in darker beers. It’s wonderful, and I can’t readily explain it, except to point out that hops oils are a mysterious and wonderful thing.
Finally, ferment with London Ale III from Wyeast (#1318). It doesn’t seem to overly-favor the hops or the malt, and brings out some nice, light esters in support. Being a relatively light attenuator, it also leaves some complementary sweetness and body behind, which works well for the style.
Some tinker with the mash temperature here to bump up the body, but rather than doing that I recommend just increasing the crystal malt addition if you notice it’s a little light or thin – the added flavor will only help, and addresses the body issue at the same time.
Boil and chill as usual, then ferment at 65F for about a week, then raise to 68F or so to clean up any diacetyl (though it’s not the worst flavor in this beer!). Once that’s done, free-add that blended ounce of Liberty and Crystal, and wait about five days. At that point, you should be good to go – package, carbonate to about two volumes of CO2, and drink!
This beer is OK to age, but I neither do so nor am able to do so – it actually goes that quickly, and the fresh hops aroma is best when young. I have family members who rarely drink craft beer, but still ask me when I’m making this one again. I’m positive you’ll enjoy it, especially as a fall-winter transitional style!