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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

On Brown Ales

The New York Times, bless their hearts, have done another beer tasting. This time brown ales:
Perhaps it’s left to us, the Dining section’s tasting panel, to rescue brown ales from marketing torpidity and reveal the vitality within, for these beers are anything but dull. Yes, they are quiet, subtle and even self-effacing. More important, they are delicious, and they especially shine with food....

As with great character actors who are so easy to take for granted, you have to pay close attention to brown ales to appreciate their virtue. They have roles to play — quenching thirst, facilitating conversation, sharpening the appetite — and they do it well. If by chance you notice the fine, almost sweet maltiness of the aroma, and the brisk, dry, mineral quality of the flavors, even better. More likely, it’s the absence of these qualities in a poor example that stands out, conveying the sense of something missing.
Eric Asimov, the Times' beer guy, knows how to write. If only he knew beer. I don't mind so much that of the 18 beers he assembled, only one is from the West Coast, or that it finished a tepid tenth in the taste-off. I don't even mind that he included, strangely, altbiers in the tasting. What I really mind is the overall failure to offer any kind of context for these decisions or the ultimate preferences. As a reader, how is anyone supposed to evaluate the difference between Avery's Ellie's Brown ("Brisk, with rich malt aromas. Fruit, mineral and bitter hop flavors") and Sam Smith's Nut Brown ("Strong malty aroma, with dry, brisk flavors that linger"). Both are brisk and richly/strongly malty.

I might not have bothered mentioning all of this, but I have a bottle of the Beertown Brown, BridgePort's latest, in the fridge awaiting review. I'll try to do better in my review than "brisk."


  1. Just (a bit) in his defense, he is writing mostly for the NYC market and most West Coast beers aren't distributed on the East Coast. That probably determined his choices more than anything, but it is unusual that Dogfish Head wasn't included.

  2. I don't criticise him for the choice of beer, either. In some cases, it's probably good he didn't have access to some of the West Coast examples--in the past, I've seen reviews where the Oregon beer they had was obviously mishandled and had been spoiled along the way. Better to be left out than to be included under those circumstances.

    But if you're going to write about beer in the NYT, you should do a credible job of framing the whole thing. I can't imagine such a sloppy article being written about, say, pinot noirs.