Monday, May 17, 2010

I'll take American Craft Beer History for $200, Alex

In the spirit of American Craft Beer Week, here's a little bit of trivia about some true American craft beer pioneering. (I'd say pionbeering, but that might be just a bit too much...)

Back in the 1980s, Scott Birdwell out of Houston was in San Rafael, CA for an annual home beer & wine convention, when he met up with Byron Birch. Byron, owner of a homebrew shop in San Rafael, shared with Scott a recipe for a dark ale named "Purple Passion Dark Ale" (I am not sure I'd admit to that). The recipe made a beer that was dark, malty, a little roasty, quite hoppy - and did very well in state competitions as well as with customers. It was, however, way out of style for any of the BJCP brown ale categories, so it never fared well against style standards or national competitions.

Scott enjoyed the beer so much, however, that he decided to create a new "California Dark" category for Houston homebrew competitions (named such as a nod to his California friends). Within a couple of years, the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) added the dark, hoppy style to its style categorizations and named it "Texan Brown Ale" due to the popularization of the style in regional competitions there. Over time, the AHA renamed the style to...

(drumroll, please)

... American Brown Ale.

Yep, the style we know and love today as American Brown overcame prior lives as Purple Passion, California Dark, and Texas Brown. If it managed to survive those, surely it's worth drinking. So there you have it - an American beer style favored and recognized by homebrewers, then popularized by commercial craft breweries. Truly a great example of the spirit of American Craft Beer week.

Beers within this style should be dark in color and should taste slightly roasty (but not as roasty as a stout or porter), chocolatey, malty, and at least moderately hoppy (if not very hoppy). The hops definitely play a prominent role in American Brown ales, and they're typically American (citrusy, piney, resiny). Contrast this to English brown ales that are sweet and malty with a low hop profile (which aren't really available here) or are dry, caramelly, nutty, and also have a mellow hop flavor and aroma (think Newcastle or Samuel Smith Nut Brown).

Probably the first commercial American Brown was Pete's Wicked Ale (brewed by Pete's Wicked, started by homebrewer Pete Slosberg), but some great examples of the style include Bell's Best Brown, Lost Coast Downtown Brown, and Moose Drool (in cans!).

Speaking of home brewing (and craft beer, while we're at it), did you know Bell's Brewing started out nearly 30 years ago as a homebrew supply shop named Kalamazoo Brewing Company?

Now you do.


  1. Pete's Wicked was one of the first craft beers that I had back in the day. I love Avery's Ellie's Brown as a good example of an American Brown.

  2. In a barely related note, has Boston ruined the word "Wicked" for anybody else? Whenever I read it, I have in my head the voice of some drunken Mass-hole saying "This is wicked good bee-a".

  3. Never tried it, but I think the greatest name ever for this style was Lagunitas' Lumpy Gravy


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