Sunday School: Brown Ales & Merlots
The following is a part of a guest series authored by Lauren Gutshall on discovering new wines and beers.
Last week we looked at some of the more unusual flavors in certain beer and wine, but sometimes simple and straightforward is exactly what you want. After a long day at work, you just want to pour a glass of something uncomplicated and easy to drink. You want something you don’t have to think about, like a hearty English brown ale or a rich glass of merlot.
I realize that some craft beer drinkers and many fine wine connoisseurs turn up their noses at brown ales and merlots because they are almost too easy to drink. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve some respect for being exactly what they are – approachable and pleasant.
Brown ales and merlots are often the gateway styles for those just getting into craft beer or red wine. And for those of us who have graduated to searching for the next big thing and the more unusual ingredients, returning to brown ales and merlots can be comforting, like hanging out with an old friend or putting on your favorite T-shirt from high school.
So what makes brown ales and merlots so approachable?
Both appeal to the masses. Brown ales are hard not to like. They are malty and rich and have a slight sweetness to them. Traditional English brown ales display little hop character, although many American brewers are increasing the hop content and experimenting with variations on the traditional style. Because of their maltiness, brown ales tend to have strong notes of toasted oats, nuts, and coffee, along with sweeter hints of caramel, vanilla, and molasses. Some tend to be bolder, almost fruit forward like a wine, but others lean toward walnut and cedar prominence.
While they don’t have a firmly documented origin, brown ales were first named in England in the 1700s, largely as a way to distinguish them from porters. They are generally brewed with a low to mid ABV, which makes them easy to consume and popular with the crowd that is trying to get into craft beers.
Like brown ales, merlot is accessible, which makes it a great gateway wine. Merlot tends to be overshadowed by more well-respected wines, but it shouldn’t be discounted. The Bordeaux grape has very thin skins so it ripens early and can be difficult to grow. It’s used both as a medium-bodied varietal and as a blending grape. When it’s blended with other Bordeaux grapes like cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and petit verdot, it softens more strident tannins and adds roundness to the wine.
Merlots can be very expressive. An initial sip of merlot is all grape and fruit: dark cherries, blackberries and plums. Underneath its fruit-forward start, merlot can pick up vegetable flavors like olives and peppers and the herbal qualities of thyme and sage. Since merlot is almost always aged in oak, it picks up some of those characteristics that are similar to an English brown ale; merlots can have the same rich hints of toffee, chocolate, nuts, vanilla, coffee, tobacco, and wood. Like brown ales, merlots fill your mouth with sweetness, but finish dry.
Because of their flavor profiles and versatility, brown ales and merlots pair well with a variety of foods. They can go with heavier meats or lighter poultry. Both like strong cheeses like sharp cheddar and nutty Italian cheeses like pecorino, asiago and parmesan.
Of course one of the best things about approachable beer and wine is that they don’t require food. You can pop the top and enjoy them anytime.
“Sunday School” returns next week with another look at beer and wine. Have a question for Lauren? Submit it in the comments below or contact me.