Brown Ales are those made from dark or brown malts. The term is believed to have been around since the 12th Century when the diffusion of bottles saw an increase. In 17th Century London, brewers used the term to describe beers such as the mild ale.
Today Brown Ales come from all around the world, most notably England, Belgium, and North American, with varied interpretations. Some are generalized as sweet and malt driven, while others are “nutty” in flavor and mild in alcohol content. In Belgium, several Browns are known as “dubbels” or “quadruples.” These style guidelines have evolved and changed over the years under social and industrial trends. The range in flavor profiles of Brown Ales dictates that the name is arbitrary. Whether sweet and malty or crisp and nutty, dark amber or deep brown, bold or mild, there are several Brown Ales out there worth sampling. Here’s a look at some of my favorites:
Smuttynose Old Brown Dog: First brewed in 1988, this Portsmouth, New Hampshire beer won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Fest the second year it was in existence. At 5.9% ABV, this deep amber-bodied ale employs four hops including Crystals and Chocolates to give it the medium-bodied textures of both an American and English Brown. Flavorfully spiced with Cascade and Willamette hops, the Old Brown Dog has yet to make its way to the West but if it did, it’d sure to be worth fetchin’.
Big Sky Moose Drool: From Missoula comes the best-selling beer in the state of Montana. Featuring a chocolate brown body and a thin off-white head, this 5.3% ABV Brown Ale makes use of two English and two Northwest varieties of hops to provide a spice that balanced the rich malt-sweetened underpinning. Pale, Caramel, Chocolate, and Whole Black Malts are used to provide beer drinkers with a sessionable yet robust product. Moose Drool is available throughout the Northwest where craft beer is sold.
Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar: The use of the word “nectar” accurately implies the rich, dessert-like body of this wonderful beer. What the brewery refers to as a “nutty twist on a traditional European brown ale,” is a tribute to Chris Studach, who is pictured on the beer’s label. Studach, a friend of Rogue head brewer John Maier, added hazelnuts to the beer during a 1993 American Homebrew Convention. There was no turning back. the beer has been a perennial winner at a variety of beer competitions, including a 2008 gold medal at both the World Beer Cup and 2008 silver at the Great American Beer Festival.
Pelican Doryman Dark: Referred to by the brewery as an “American Brown Ale”, this 5.8% ABV dessertif is as dark as the depth of the Pacific with a bold roastiness married with a generous serving of Cascade and Mt. Hood hops (42 IBU). What began as a homebrew recipe for Pelican head brewer Darron Welch has become a perennial favorite. The Doryman received a gold medal at the 2007 GABF for the category of American Brown Ales. It is quite an amazing beer that needs to be experienced by any lover of craft beer.
Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale: Here’s a Brown Ale that isn’t gonna fit into any specific category. Described by the brewery as “a cross between a Scotch Ale, an IPA, and an American Brown” this brew, like many of head brewer Sam Calagione’s inventions, is “off-centered.” At 7.2% ABV with a big 50 IBUs, this Brown is hardier than most. Using aromatic barley and caramelized brown sugar, it provides a new idea of what “Brown” might mean. With notes of molasses, toffee, raisins, and ginger, this big Brown is said to pair well with balsamic vinaigrette salads, smoked meats, duck confit, braised ribs, venison, prosciutto, and a variety of stews. Taste for yourself.
Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale: Here is a more tradition mild Brown ale from Tadcaster, Yorkshire, England. One of the original Browns available for distribution in the United States, this beer is a Brewpublic favorite. With a walnut-like hue and a subtle hazelnut flavor (this is derrived from the malts, not the addition of actual nuts). Brewed in Yorkshire-styled square fermenters, the round and nutty smoothness of this particular brew pairs well with Stilton cheese, grouse and roasted game hen, barbecued duck, pepper steak; spicy food, paella, stir-fry, teriyaki, Thai food, Chinese food, creamy chicken and pineapple curry. It is recommended that it be served at 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Available in 18.7 ounce “Victorian pints” an 12 ounce bottles.
Avery Ellie’s Brown Ale: Named for brewmaster Adam Avery‘s late beloved Chocolate Lab, this particular Brown Ale is an excellent example of an American Brown Ale. With a deep russet hue and a sweet, mildly nutty flavor, Ellie’s offers hints of vanilla and nuts with a mild (for American craft brew standards) 5.5% ABV. This Brown rests on the maltier side of the spectrum with a light sprucing of Bullion, Cascade, and Fuggles hops. A winner of a 2005 bronze medal at the GABF, Ellie’s is a labor of love that you may surely love, too.
Lost Coast Downtown Brown: From Eureka, California comes this American take on an English Brown Ale. Lightly hopped with a hint of roasted Crystal malts, This beer is to ales what a Schwarzbier is to lagers – “dark in color without the heavy taste of a porter or a stout.” A wonderful floral bouquet emits from this 5% ABV ale with a minuscule off-white head. One of the best beers from Lost Coast, the brewery also offers a fruited version, the Raspberry Brown, also available in bottles.
This has been just a microscopic peer into a world of Brown Ales. It is recommended that you seek out more of the English milds such as Newcastle Brown or Moorhouse Black Cat to get a feel for the origins of this somewhat ambiguous style. Other wonderful Belgian Browns include St. Bernardus Pater 6, Maredsous 8, Leffe Bruin, and an assortment of sour Oud Bruins (old browns) that land in a whole different realm like the wonderfully complex Goudenband.