BROWN ALE CAN BE perfect tedium: an utterly neutral embodiment of beer’s most pedestrian qualities. Moderate in every way, even when done well it is not designed to dazzle like a brilliant tripel, leveling stout, or explosive IPA. How, then, to distinguish exceptional brown ales from the mediocre when the style itself seems to resist superlatives?
By starting with Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, for one. Simultaneously workaday and uniquely inspired, this northern English brown is one of the world’s benchmark brews. One sip of it will dispel all fuzzy philosophizing about style paragons; the beer’s simple brilliance is not to be trammeled with any of that claptrap. Just drink it and delight.
The beer’s color is indeed similar to the brown of its label and name, but not drably so. The hue is mid-amber, partly leathern, nutty, or like toffee—a host of reassuringly earthy associations with persistent albeit small effervescence percolating up to the two fingers of foamy white head. Its aromas are correspondingly warm—creamy caramel, some toasted nuts (almond, pecan, walnut—take your pick), a milky chocolate background, and warm dark bread. 31 IBUs are a touch elevated for the style and impart a light earthy hop counterpoint early on the palate. The body is smack-dab middling (3 Plato), but oriented enough towards specialty grains to ensure a final impression that is wholly malty. Fruity esters are very gentle, showing only a light bit of red berries before the clean diffusion of the finish and a bit of retronasal roast. This closing note is quietly masterful, very balanced with just a touch of 5% ABV and mineralic residuals that prevent the malts from lingering too long. Altogether a true classic almost too humble for its own good. But then again, that’s brown ale.
Served: 550 ml bottled February 26, 2013 (SB26M1)