Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Nut Brown Ale

Despite my best efforts, I still occasionally get drawn into arguments on BeerAdvocate. I've just been having a particularly good one about Nut Brown Ale and the fact, as a specific brand or type of beer, it's a very modern invention, Brown Ale having completely died out in the 19th century.

My opponent didn't seem willing to or capable of finding any evidence to back his assertion that Nut Brown Ale existed in the 19th century. So I thought I'd do it for him. I didn't expect to find any evidence of its existence. But I was interested in finding when beers specifically called Nut Brown Ale first appeared. My guess was early 1920's. But I thought I may as well give the 19th century a sweep, too.

What I found was interesting, to say the least.

First, I suspect that this Christmas carol is the source of the phrase. I've seen it in so many 19th-century collections of songs that it must have been very well known:

The nut-brown ale, the nut-brown ale,
Puts downe all drinke when it is stale,
The toast, the nut-meg, and the ginger,
Will make a sighing man a singer.
Ale gives a buffet in the head,
But ginger under proppes the brayne;
When ale would strike a strong man dead,
Then nut-megge tempers it againe,
The nut-brown ale, the nut-brown ale,
Puts downe all drinke when it is stale. 
"Christmas Carols, ancient & modern" by William Sandys, 1833, page lxiv.

I'm not sure of its exact date but, judging by the laguage and spelling, it's no later than the 17th century and possibly 16th century.

Looking at the occurrences of the phrase "nut brown ale" in 19th-century newspapers, they fall into three broad categories:

1. In poems and songs, or when someone was writing in a particularly florid style.

2. When describing the beer served at feasts, such as: Christmas, Harvest Home, an heir attaining majority, banquets given for the poor, celebratory dinners of organisations or businesses. It seems to have particularly used to describe the beer given by the gentry to their tenants.

3. When trying to evoke the past in a nostalgic way, usually implying that the nut brown ale of Olde England was better than the beer of today.

What's fascinating is that, though the term was used to describe beer served on certain occasions, there's nothing to indicate that it really was a special kind of beer which carried that specific name. More that it was a poetic way of describing beer at a celebration. So while the phrase "nut brown ale" was common, it wasn't really a specific kind of beer.

I'll be regaling you with examples of all three types of references over the next few days. But, as I know it's everyone's favourite, let's start with some doggerel, sorry, poetry and song. First, it's an example from a little earlier, where at least some of the types of beer mentioned really existed:


WHEN the chill Sirocco blows,
And winter tells a heavy tale;
When 'pyes and daws, and rooks and crows,
Do sit and curse the frost and snows.
Then give me ale!
Stout brown ale, nut-brown ale,
O give me nut-brown ale.


Ale in a Saxon rumkin then,
Such as will make Grimalkin prate,
Bids valour bourgeon in tall men;.
Quickens the poet's wit and pen;
Despises fate ——
Old brown ale, nut-brown ale,
O give me stout brown ale.


Ale that the plowman's heart up keeps,
And equals it to tyrant's thrones,
That wipes the eye which over weeps,
And lulls in sweet and dainty sleeps
The wearied bones.
Old brown ale, nut-brown ale——
O give me stout brown ale.
"The banquet of Thalia, or the Fashionable songsters pocket memorial" Frederick Atkinson, 1790.

Old Brown Ale and Stout Brown Ale really existed in the 18th century. Stout Brown Ale, called Stitch in London, was the Ale equivalent of Brown Stout, that is strong malt liquor brewed from brown malt with a modest level of hopping. I think you can work out what Old Brown Ale was.

Here's a later song:


The vinous drink is lov'd by many,
Yet I will gage a silver penny;
To whatever quarter you may sail,
No drink you'll find like nut brown ale.

Of liquors, I have had my share,
Of every kind that's choice and rare,
But no one can with me prevail,
To think they equal nut brown ale.

The foaming tankard on the board,
What pleasure does its Might afford,
Can any one in conscience rail,
Speak ill of sparkling nut brown ale,

Malt is the best thing e'er was born.
Or exchang'd for a barley corn.
For without malt we all should fail,
To get a drop of nut brown ale.
"The red, white & blue monster song book" edited by J. Diprose, 1860, page 315.

Note the poetic, nostalgia-inducing phrases: "foaming tankard", "barley corn" and "I will gage a silver penny".

The Scots saeem to have had a special affinity for doggerel:

Go, get thee gone, thou dastardly loon,
Go, get thee to thine own countrie
If ever you cross the Border again,
The muckle deil accompany thee.
There's mony a tree in fair Scotland,
And there's ane, the gallows-tree,
On which hang the Irish rogues,
A fitting place it is for thee.

Go get thee gone, thou dastardly loon,
Too good for thee is brose and kale:-—
We've lads and ladies gay in the land,
Bonny lasses, and nut-brown ale.
When thou goest to merry Carlisle,
Welcome take thy loud laughters three;
But know that most of our beggarly clan
Came from the Holy Land like thee.

Go, get thee gone, thou beggarly loon,
On thee our maidens refused to smile:-
Our pipers they scorn'd to beg from thee,
A half-starv'd knight of the Emerald Isle.
Go rather and herd thy father's pigs,
And feed on 'tatoes and butter-milk;
But return not to the princely North,
Land of the tartan, the bonnet, and kilt.
North Devon Journal - Friday 11 February 1825, page 3.
A bit politically incorrect, with its talk of hanging Irish rogues. I do love the phrase "dastardly loon", though.

I could continue - there are loads more examples - but that's enough rhymes for one day. Next time we'll be looking at nut brown ale at feasts.


Bailey said...

I'm fairly confident that the problem is a missing hyphen: it should be nut-brown, not nut brown. As in, it describes a colour.

(Though the popularity of 'nutty' as a tasting note in early editions of the Good Beer Guide perhaps suggests some connection.)

Phil said...

It's a poetic epithet. All ale was brown (I think this may be the key point some of your disputants are missing), so if you were singing the praises of ale you'd naturally refer to its brownness. Just calling it brown would fall a bit flat, so you'd go for good brown ale, old brown ale, stout brown ale... nut-brown ale. You can practically see the poetical process in action in that second poem.

The first - and almost certainly oldest - quote seems to be talking specifically about ale punch or mulled ale. Would throwing in a load of cake spice make ale especially brown, or was it just an association of ideas between 'nut-brown' and nutmeg?

Ron Pattinson said...

Phil, I think you're right that it's referring to some sort of punch with the stuff about ginger and nutmeg. I hadn't realised that.

Nut-brown and nutmeg? Not sure. Might just be because the two sound nice when used together.

I don't think the spices would particularly colour the beer to any degree.

Ron Pattinson said...


sometimes the hyphen is there in old texts which, as you say, makes the meaning of the phrase obvious.

Gary Gillman said...

There was certainly a tradition of strong brown ale and some of this was Burton Ale. While it is true that the 19th century often insisted on the paleness of Burton Ale (I mean the pre-IPA drink), numerous references indicate that some of it was brown earlier, perhaps even in its heyday.

How do we know it? Peter Mathias cites one Trent Valley brewer, Wilson, insisting on the merits of his dark Burton ale. Wilson appears to have felt the colour contributed to strength, which was an old confusion, but brown malt liquors seem often to have the quality of preservation - Combrune noted this - so maybe he confused that with strength - at all events Wilson, an exporter to the Baltic at the end of the 1700's wanted his beer strong to encourage its soundness.

Burton Abbey, founded around 1000, was said by Alfred Barnard to be noted for its "nut brown ale", he uses the famous phrase.

This later 1800's reference, in a business article on the great Burton brewers, stated that the former beer of renown in Burton was a "strong and brown ale":

Bass No. 1 isn't pale I believe, nor is Young's Winter Warmer.

At the same time numerous references in the 1800's - I've seen them too - insist Burton Ale should be straw-like in colour and pale as possible.

I think the answer must be, in the more distant past, it was both, depending who made it and when. Some was brewed brown, and some probably did get colour from the toasted bread and spices put in it when people still did that, Phil has a point there.

And so, I think it is arguable that the the admired nut brown ale was, at certain times, Burton Ale, but not only that type for many towns and areas made strong ales, e.g. Derby, and some of it had to be brown.


Ron Pattinson said...


it's pretty clear to me that Burton Ale was brown in the 18th century and pale for most of the 19th century. Whether Bass No. 1 has always been dark, I don't know. I have no evidence either way.

The London style of Burton got dark around 1900. As Winter Warmer is in that style, you'd expect it to be dark. In the 19th century the style was pale in colour.

Rob said...

I only read the beginning of the thread on BA, but doesnt this post prove some of them right?

While it may not have made the label, people were using the phrase to describe beers well before the 20th century?

Ron Pattinson said...


those references aren't talking about a specific type of beer. "Nut-brown ale" was just a stock phrase, a poetical way of referring to the great old beer of the past.

Amos said...

I think Phil is right that it's a poetic epiphet. Milton talks about "spicy Nut-brown ale" in L'Allegro, published in 1645 (line 100)"'allegro/

Alan said...

Nut brown is a descriptor for other forms of appealing object:

Isn't it likely that nuts were more common and the colour of nut paper - likely hazelnut, due to its past more common role in the diet - was appealing? So nut brown might just mean handsome brown or even that a particular handsome shade of brown that like a brown of a nut. More particular than a stock phrase but still common. Like Robins egg blue or grass green?

Alan said...

PS: brown ale was attractive to Piers the Ploughman in 1378, too:

Gary Gillman said...

I agree it wasn't a style. It was a term that probably was applied to many kinds of ale - beer too - and just became one of those expressions. Nappy ale was another (meaning strong), albeit not as famous. At certain times, a Burton could have been nut-brown ale, or a Dorsetshire beer, or a Scottish beer. It is an indistinct term as brown ale itself is.


Bob Kiley said...

If I say burton ale, today people think IPA; if I say mild, they think low alcohol, dark, and low hop. If I said these terms in the 19th century it would be a totally different thing! (Dark, sweeter beer, and young ale respectively)
It may be that the term nut-brown ale was used to denote a beer style, or not; it makes no difference. The modern style would bare no resemblance to the original (if there was one).

Rob said...

"those references aren't talking about a specific type of beer."

Does that matter?

I think there may have been some talking at cross-purposes, but I thought the point (of some anyway) was the the phrase "nut brown ale" was used to describe beer before that song/poem.

And you have definitively proven that.

Phil said...

The Piers Plowman quote is interesting - "the best and the brownest", indeed. But bear in mind that Piers is written in *alliterative* verse, so 'brownest' would have been chosen partly because it begins with B.

Gary - nap is fuzz or froth, so 'nappy' ale is ale with a head.

I think some of these comments miss the stylistic point. If you're writing a restaurant review, you describe the actual roast pork that was on your plate - was it dry, was it greasy, was there crackling, and so on. If you're writing about mythical roast pork or writing a poem in praise of roast pork, you imagine what roast pork is like - particularly when it's good - and you write about that.

Similarly with beer. In the periods we're writing about, people weren't referring to 'nut-brown ale' to distinguish it from all the other shades of ale which were available at your local craft ale tavern: they called ale brown (and nappy) because ale was brown (and had a head), at least when it was any good. Then if you wanted to describe particularly good ale you'd say it was really brown, or nut-brown. I think that's all there is to it.

Alan said...

Phil. With respect, the word was chosen because the beer was very brown. It's placement suited the verse but the concept being described s a hierarchy with brownest at the top. My point is that most brown is a theme that might arc to nut-brown. We don't have this basic concept any more. We rarely praise brownness in a woman's hair or a meal set before us. Yet so much around us is brown, Even writing very brown is a bit odd.