As winter comes upon us, we realize that our large selection of IPAs aren’t able to provide that toasty warming feeling that darker ales can bring. So we decided on a brown ale. What type of brown ale: American brown ale, Southern English brown ale, Northern English brown ale, Flander’s brown ale, Brown porter etc. Well I’ll tell you. Something that tastes good.
We wanted a mildly sweet, malty beer, with no bitter taste from hops or dark grains. Thus we used two techniques to hide the bitterness of the beer. First wort hopping, which creates a less harsh bitterness from the hops. And cold steeping the dark grains, which prevents bitter/astringent flavours from the dark grains (chocolate malt and roasted barley) from getting into the beer. This is our first time cold steeping, so we could have total debauchery.
Appearance: Dark brown, close to becoming the colour of a porter. There is a thick, bubbly head, but it quickly recedes to just a thin layer of foam on the top of the beer.
Aroma: Lightly fruity, with the dark malt aromas of chocolate and coffee coming in later.
Taste: A surprising taste of dark fruits like plums and raisins, followed by a hint of caramel. Very little bitterness. There is a sweetness that comes in a little bit later. Slightly thicker mouth feel. Does not really taste like a dark beer as it lacks dark flavours of burned coffee and harsh cocoa. Very smooth. It almost has the taste of port wine
Overall: This is a very mild and smooth beer. There are no harsh tastes. The malt and hop bitterness are both very smooth. However, from all this smoothness comes a muddled flavour; nothing really sticks out and captures your attention. This can be a good thing as it makes it very easy drinking and session-able; however, it also makes it somewhat boring.
Specifics: 23 litre batch, 79% extraction efficiency, ABV 5.4%, O.G. 1.052, IBU 31, single infusion mash at 68 Celsius for 60 minutes
We wanted the grain bill to have a strong character. Even though this is a brown ale, we still like to add hops, so we wanted Honey malt and Munich malt to more than cover the hops we are going to add.
Gambrinus Pale Malt: 6 lb (we would have used ESB malt, but we didn’t have any)
Gambrinus Munich Light: 4 lb (to create a strong malt character to balance out the hops)
Chocolate Malt: 8 oz (to add the dark chocolate taste and colour)
Gambrinus Wheat Malt: 8 oz (to add more protein for a good head, plus since the beer is fairly dark is doesn’t matter if it makes the beer slightly hazy)
Carmel 70-80: 4 oz (to add complexity, adding some bittersweet toffee flavours to linger on the tongue)
Gambrinus Honey Malt: 4 oz (more sweetness to balance out the hops, plus it has a toasty character we like)
Roasted Barley: 2 oz (to darken the beer even more; because we cold steeped the grain, I’m not sure what flavour it will contribute to the beer)
(Left: Roasted barley and chocolate malt steeping in cold water in a pot for 8 hours. Right: Just after the dark grains are added to the mash tun)
Dark grains like chocolate malt and roasted barley can add harsh bitter tastes to the beer when they are let sit in the mash tun for 60 minutes at high temperatures (between 65 and 70 Celsius). To prevent this, there is a technique called ‘cold steeping’. Instead of adding the dark grains to the mash tun, we let them sit in a pot filled with cold water for 8 hours. After they were finished steeping, we added the dark grains to the mash tun during the last 10 minutes of sparging. Thus instead of sitting in the mash tun for 120 minutes (60 minute for the mash, 60 minute for the sparge), the dark grains sat in the mash tun for only 10 minutes, being exposed to less heat, extracting less of the harsh bitter flavours that linger in dark grains.
Apparently, cold steeping is also beneficial if your water is very soft (the water along coastal British Columbia, where we are located, is very soft). Dark malts are very acidic, and can cause significant drops in the pH level of the mash. Soft water has less alkaline minerals, thus the pH level is already lower. By not including dark malts in the mashing process, the mash pH level remains higher, which is important when working with soft water. (I’m not a chemist, thus this information comes only from the reliable halls of information of the internet. Water chemistry is considerably more complicated than just assessing the ‘softnesss’ of the water.)
(Left: Light colour of the wort before adding the dark grains. Right: Dark colour of the wort 2 minutes after adding the dark grains to the mash tun)
We wanted a more ‘English’ style brown ale, so we only used Willamette hops. Though these are technically American hops (named after the Willamette Valley/River in Oregon), they have a woody, earthy aroma and flavour similar to English hops. We thought they were perfect for complementing the dark toasty grains in a brown ale. Also, citrus flavours in a brown ale sounded weird.
First Wort Hopping: 0.5 oz Willamette (added when the wort is still sparging into the brew kettle; this creates a smoother bitterness)
60 minutes: 1 oz Willamette
15 minutes: 0.5 oz Willamette (to add some hop flavour, without adding hop aroma to let the sweet malt aroma come through)
(‘First Wort Hopping’ with the hops sitting in the wort as the wort drains into the brew kettle)
Put on the yeast cake (Cooper’s Ale yeast) used after a Bitter Peach Wheat Ale.
Primary fermentation: 14 days.
No secondary fermentation, we were lazy.