Partly because of the generic words that make up the name of this style and partly due to the fact that this style is just so very old, it is impossible to exactly describe its lineage. The modern brown ale style most commonly brewed has its roots in English brewing tradition. The style, whose history stretched all the way back to the unhopped ales, all but died out in the 19th century. The gains in popularity of the dry, spicy porter style made the older beer style seem bland.
For most of the 20th-century brown ale was defined by geographical terms. Southern English browns were dark, sweet and tended to have lower gravities than their northern brethren. They were often the bottled version of a brewery's mild or even a complete replacement of the style whose popularity declined throughout the century. Northern English browns were lighter in color and crisper - think Newcastle Brown Ale. Today the line between brown ale sub-styles is not quite so bright. This is thanks to corporate mergers and buy-outs among English brewing companies and the variety of brown ales produced by American craft brewers that range from soft, sweet, dark ales to bright, fizzy hop-busters.
As I said above, the range of brown ales is vast today.
One characteristic, however, should remain true for well brewed brown ales across that range: a strong malty center. Brown ales are a celebration of the maltster's art with flavors such as caramel, toffee, biscuits and coffee are common. The yeast used to ferment browns is usually an English ale variety that adds traces of fruity flavors and aromas such as plums, raisins or ripe apples.
Hops are often evident in the Northern styles as well as most of the American brewed browns but should never dominate. The mouthfeel of most browns ranges from medium to light with a decent amount of carbonation.
Brown ale is a fantastic food beer. Everything from simple roast beef to a spicy Thai or Indian dish works beautifully with a good brown ale. The malty quality of the beer gives it a fine bread-like quality that serves as a great compliment to most any meal. Brown is my go-to style if I'm not sure what beer to serve.
Brands to Try
For more information about Brown ale and other English beer styles, check out Amber, Black & Gold by Martyn Cornell.