Session 120: Brown Beer

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This month, Brighton-based Joe Tindall hosts the 120th Friday Session and has chosen a topic that comes with some emotional baggage: brown beer.

He explains:

“The colour brown has certain connotations, some of which I won’t dwell on. But used in reference to beer, it can signify a kind of depressing old fashioned-ness – to refer to a traditional bitter as ‘brown’ seems to suggest it belongs to a bygone corduroy-trousered era. As breweries who pride themselves on their modernity focus on beers that are either decidedly pale or unmistakably black, the unglamorous brown middle ground is consistently neglected.

So for Session 120, let’s buck the trend and contemplate brown beer. This might be brown ale, or the aforementioned English bitter; it could be a malty Belgian brune, a dubbel or a tart oud bruin; even a German dunkel might qualify.”

Joe is absolutely right. It’s time to ditch this lazy prejudice. I have ripped off my corduroy trousers and thrown them from the upstairs window.

This also gives me an opportunity to add a local slant – I want to talk about a gem little known outside its native borders: Death or Glory by Tring Brewery.

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There are only a handful of long-running cask strong ales across Britain and this is Hertfordshire’s. Heavy abv beers have become legion over the past few years but this ale is an old-timer by comparison. Tring Brewery was founded in 1992 and Death or Glory was first brewed in 1994, so celebrates its twenty third birthday this year. It’s a 7.2 abv beer traditionally brewed on 25th October to commemorate the charge of the Light Brigade but is now produced numerous times a year.

It’s billed as a strong ale though if you wanted to shoehorn it, you could call it a barley wine. It features Styrian and Challenger hops and Maris Otter, Crystal and Chocolate malt.

It’s a beer that would mellow over a few days but doesn’t often get the chance; when it does the rounds across the beer engines of Hertfordshire, the cask can be completely emptied by the pub-goers on the day of tapping. You usually have to be quick on your feet down to the local to score some.

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What was noteworthy when it was first made is that it was aged – a process given to few beers at the time in Britain. It’s always matured for a month before release.

It’s in the midst of modern beers going into the citrussy hop jungles that this beer stands out even more. It’s of a different time and disposition. There is fruit but it’s not the modern pale oozing tropical juices – it’s more typically British. It reflects the climate; the conserves and the pickling. This has the taste of jams and chutneys, nods to brown sauce and Worcester sauce.

When it’s dispensed from a bottle, there’s an appropriate whoosh of carbonation when you crack it open but there are no runnels charging up the inside of the glass because the beer is too rich.

On the eye it’s like dark treacle. The aroma is of tar, stewed dark fruit, polished wood and bitumen. The palate reflects notes of black cherries, dandelion and burdock, iodine, molasses or brown sugar and that funfair staple – candied apples encased in a caramel amber. It’s viscous and sticky like the thrush-strewn berries along autumn gutters.

It laminates the tongue and inner maw like a glaze. It’s everything in all directions with the fruity hops in there somewhere clinging to flotsam in the maelstrom. It goes sweet, sickly sweet then bitter and retraces this circuit.

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I wanted to give an idea of this beer on cask so I rang the brewery. I was told if it would be anywhere it would be in the Lamb in Stoke Goldington in north Buckinghamshire. I contacted this pub and found out it’s on as a permanent! At my earliest opportunity, I embarked on a quest into this exotic county that borders mine – a proper Ernest Shackleton, me.

There’s a more rounded feel to the beer when it’s dispensed from beer engine. When you swallow it, it’s vaulted from the condition in the cask – it gives it more life and at the same time spreads it out more. It feels less adhesive and carries itself more lightly.

What really completes this ale is to understand the context it’s from. Currently, we’re in the middle of winter and the tarmac and cobbles have a zinc sparkle from the frost. It’s that time of year when we have to get up earlier to defrost the car and drive slower. It’s that time when walking, you lower your centre of gravity rounding a corner to get to the village inn and this is where Death or Glory comes into its own. It’s sitting here in a rural pub with an open fire that completes it.

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You grin daftly from the warmth and morph into a happy Christmas bauble. As you sit by the crackling hearth, you wonder whether mankind built stone dwellings and harnessed fire simply to complement a beer like this rather than the other way around.

This is where the beer was conceived and grew up. It isn’t refreshing but nourishing. It makes sense here in the biting jaws of January to help relax, thaw out and loosen sinews. It would make no sense in Sydney or in Palm Beach. It might have been fate that it was originally brewed at the end of October – just as we say goodbye to the sun and beer gardens.

Boring brown beer? Nope. Try endearing, satisfying, warming, luxuriant, complex, heartening, life-affirming, soothing brown beer. But like a lot of local staples the world over, you just might need to be in its land of origin at the right time to appreciate it fully.

4 Comments

  1. Great post Alec! I’ve tried bottled Death or Glory and really liked it – in fact I rate Tring highly all-round. Would love to try it from the cask. Cheers for contributing to The Session.

  2. Only a true beer geek could wax so prosaic about a brown beer (or any beer). I’m reading this at the breakfast table here in California and wishing a had a Death or Glory to drink with my cereal.

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