It’s interesting how craft beer brings back unloved beer styles, rebooted with hops (see pilsner). Brown ales used to be considered a bit bland, but the recent American-style brown ales are quite hoppy and bold. In this review we have two Japanese examples of American brown ales, one a Baird standard and one a recent collaboration between Tamamura Honten and Pizza Port. It’s not apples-to-apples as an English-style brown will be much milder but for context we’re also going to try the Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, which I have not tried before but should be a shining example of a classic English-style brown ale.
Baird Angry Boy Brown Ale
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 45
Pour – Darkish opaque brown, muddy, moderate carbonation
Aroma – Roasted malts, fairly mild and smooth aroma, not much hops
Flavor – Malts very prominent, hops in the middle, dry bitter finish that lingers. As it warms up sweetness comes out a bit more
This is one of my favorite Baird beers – often their beers are not too spectacular, but I really enjoy this one. If they made more beers that were as adventurous as this, they would probably shed the “workmanlike” perception that at least I have of them. At 7%, it’s a bit more intense, to use their own words, than most brown ales.
In particular, I think this beer achieves a good balance of hops and malt. The hoppiness is definitely there, but the malt character is also strong enough to not let the hops overpower it. The roasted aspect shines in the dry finish, and there is a sweetness to it as well. Surprisingly the aroma overall is quite mild considering that it is a very flavorful beer.
Tamamura Honten x Pizza Port So Sexy Brown
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 60
Pour – Cola black, not much carbonation
Aroma – Bready, roasted malts are strong, nutty as well
Flavor – Initially malts are strong, followed by bitter, roasted finish, very hoppy on the finish as well, nuttiness stands out
Another great beer from Tamamura Honten, this sexy brown is a collaboration between Tamamura Honten and Pizza Port from the San Diego area. Tamamura Honten tend to hop up their beers like crazy, but of course Pizza Port themselves are no stranger to hoppy beers. For this particular collaboration they used Pizza Port’s malt bill with Tamamura Honten taking care of the hops (details here).
Comparing it to the Baird Angry Boy, it actually follows a similar flavor profile, except that the So Sexy Brown is a bit bolder in all aspects – initial maltiness is stronger, hops on the finish are stronger (60 IBUs to 45 – yes, IBUs are an imperfect measure of hops and bitterness but with a similar flavor profile it should tell us something), and the roastiness is stronger. Personally, I prefer the Tamamura Honten mostly due to the roastiness – the extra hop bitterness is nice, but the roast nuttiness is what really puts this on top compared the the Baird offering. In fact, this combination of balance and boldness makes this one of Tamamura Honten’s best dark beers, if not the best.
Incidentally, one sign that Japan is beginning to be recognized globally on the scene is that we are starting to see more collaborations recently with foreign brewers. Tamamura Honten did not only this one with Pizza Port but also one with Hair of the Dog not long ago, and North Island did a wonderful Haskap Blonde beer with Mikkeller a few months ago. Luc Bim Lafontaine even did a whole series with Ushitora recently, so it’s clear that Japan is at least on the radar.
Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale
Package: 355mL bottle
Pour – Caramel brown, quite fizzy
Aroma – Burnt sugar smell is very strong, very very sweet
Flavor – Initially sugar is overwhelming, but quickly settles into a caramel spice sweetness that is quite pleasant, nice malt highlights, some bitterness on finish
I remember drinking Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout a long time ago at Bukowski in Boston (Bukowski now have a branch in Inman Square as well!), but I don’t remember trying the Nut Brown Ale. Huzzahed as the oldest brewery in Yorkshire, they were established in 1758 and apparently use the same traditional brewing methods. I won’t go into the details as I don’t understand them, but apparently they involve things called Yorkshire Squares (which are now round) and shire horses (ok, so the horses are only used for local distribution and are not part of the actual brewing process).
The aroma is almost sickeningly sweet (the ingredient list does include cane sugar), but the flavor itself is not as sweet as you would expect given the aroma. Of course the sugar is a big part of the taste, but it manifests itself in the flavor as kind of a soft sweetness – the malts are there, and it turns into a less pronounced kind of caramel sweetness that you get sometimes with Belgian ales. I personally don’t get a lot of nuttiness, but I do get bitterness on the finish.
As a very traditional English-style brown you don’t get the strong hops that you might with the American-style Baird Angry Boy and the Tamamura Honten So Sexy Brown, but it’s easy to see the lineage in the way that the flavors develop. The Samuel Smith’s emphasizes the sweetness initially, whereas the Baird and Tamamura Honten downplay the sweetness and bring out more of the bready character in the malts at first, and all three finish bitter. Of course, the American-style ones have a much stronger hop kick in that bitter finish, but you can see that the pattern is similar. The Tamamura Honten really separates itself from the pack here with more prominent roast (and perhaps more oomph all around), but all three have their merits and present themselves well. I was especially surprised that the Samuel Smith’s turned out to be quite nice – I expected that it would suffer from a lack of hoppiness compared to it’s American-style brethren, but it held up quite well and I would be happy to drink it again.
We’ll follow up in the future with more brown ales from Japan – American-style ones are far more common than English-style ones, but hopefully we’ll still see some variation within the style as we explore further.