Saturday, November 14, 2009

The History of American Brown Ale & American Pale Ale (Kind Of)

Today, it's easy for us beer people – the committed and the casual alike – to take styles for granted. After all, we have organizations like the BJCP and competitions from the GABF to the World Beer Cup to myriad homebrew comps that help keep beers more or less tidily segmented and compartmentalized for us. Then there are beer-rating sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer that allow beer drinkers to see how their favorite commercial brews stack up against their category-mates.

Yet it wasn't so long ago that many of the styles we are so familiar with now were either a mere figment of a brewer's imagination, or even if sitting right under our noses, had yet to be given the proper recognition and codification that today seems like such a no-brainer.

In the former category falls American Brown Ale. As far back as the early 1980s, when all that the world knew of Brown Ales was Newcastle and the like, homebrewers out in California were whipping up their own imaginative take on the style. Scott Birdwell, owner of Defalco's Home Wine and Beer Supplies in Houston, and a seasoned pillar of the homebrewing scene in his own right, tells of a trip to San Rafael, Calif., sometime during the Reagan years:

I was visiting a couple of friends who owned a homebrew shop there (Jay Conner & Byron Burch - Great Fermentations). They had a flyer for a recipe for Purple Passion Dark Ale with John Bull Dark Malt Extract, crystal & chocolate malts, and a ton of hops. This was a popular recipe with their customers and did well in local and regional homebrew competitions, but got slammed in the AHA & HWBTA Nationals for not meeting the style guidelines for "Brown Ales" (assumed to be British brown ales). It was true these beers didn't conform to traditional brown ale standards: they were too dark and too bitter. But, man, they were popular on the West Coast, becoming increasingly popular on the Gulf Coast, and were damn good beers!

Now here's where those devoted, zany and innovative Houston-based homebrewers known as The Foam Rangers (my former club) enter the picture. Their annual Dixie Cup competition, which these days ranks among the world's largest annually, would play a vital role in bringing this unique California concoction into greater prominence. Scott "Da Birdman" again:

We were in the infancy of the Dixie Cup at that time and I decided to include a category for these brews. We already had a category called "No Commercial Comparisons," in which the entries didn't meet commercial standards (at least the commercial beers available at that time). We decided to call the new category "California Dark" in deference to our friends on the West Coast. The category was an immediate success, even if we weren't overwhelmed with entries. ... The AHA immediately picked up on the California Dark category, but curiously decided to name the style "Texas Brown Ale" in deference to us (nice, but we weren't the brewing innovators, just the competition innovators). Obviously this struck a note with homebrewers all over the country as this proved to be a popular style, and eventually the name evolved into "American Brown Ale." This is probably an appropriate name given its widespread popularity. These days I consider "Texas Brown Ales" to be "extreme" American Brown Ales: O.G. at least 1.060 and 40 IBU's, but that may just be me.

For all the strictness and even arbitrariness modern style parameters seem to reflect, this tale reminds us that styles do in fact arise organically – such that even a well-known style like American Brown Ale can be traced to a San Francisco suburb by way of a humble competition in Texas.

But that's not all. Consider this final anecdote from Scott:

As far as I know, Dixie Cup VII in October 1990 was the first time any homebrew contest featured a category entitled "American Pale Ale." In those days, when the number of beer style categories were considerably more limited, we (meaning the Foamers) did not limit ourselves to AHA and/or HWBTA style categories (this was before the BJCP established it's own guidelines). We felt free to establish our own categories with style descriptions for the Dixie Cup. This is how (American Pale Ale) came into being. ... That first year for APA (1990), it was the largest single category we had for that year's Dixie Cup (I seem to recall we received over 30 entries). The AHA jumped on this and incorporated APA the very next spring for the NHC.

Wow, talk about trail blazers. It's no huge leap to say this club and this competition were responsible for the formal recognition of two major American beer styles. And in the case of APA, consider that the very paradigm of the style, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, had been in production for fully 10 years before the national beer-agenda setters, spurred by the Foamies, picked up on the style. Within two years, the GABF got on board, and APA has never looked back since. Ttoday there are over 2,000 commercial APAs listed on BeerAdvocate, more than any other single style.

Behold the power of homebrewers.

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