Hops are hot; sours are sexy; imperials are amusing—but brown ales are boring?—at least they are in the minds of many craft beer lovers unaware of the complexity of the brown beer spectrum.
If you judge a book by its cover, brown ales might seem dull. But, when you look below the surface, they can be just as innovative, tasty and food-friendly as every other style, if not more.
Like red ales and ambers, brown ales are discerned by a color rather than a historical, regional, or ingredient-based classification. But, defining a beer by its hue might be likened to describing wine as being merely red or white.
“Few beers are named by a color, which is rather generic,” says Adam Avery, founder of Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo., Avery’s Ellie’s Brown Ale, a relatively aggressive American brown¹, has had a place on the brewery’s tap list since its inception in 1993. “[Brown Ales] definitely have a place,” says Avery. “It might not be a hot style, but it is a food friendly beer.”
What differentiates the beers in this wide-reaching, color-based category is the country and region of origin. England, Belgium, Germany and even the U.S. have a rich history of producing brown ales. From American brown ales to robust porters, abbey bruins to oude bruins, English milds to India brown ales, the spectrum of brown-colored beers is quite far-reaching and distinctively diverse.
Brown Ale’s Brief History
Brewers in London, England, first used the term “brown ale” in the late 17th century. Back then, brown ales varied in alcohol strength, were lightly hopped, and brewed mostly from brown malt. As more and more brewers opted to use cheaper and more readily available pale malts as a base, brown ales lost their luster in the 18th century.
The term “brown ale” resurfaced in the late 19th century with the production of Manns Brown Ale in England. With its release in 1925, Newcastle Brown Ale set the stage for the success and future popularity of the style. In 1986, American craft beer pioneers, Pete Slosberg and Mark Bronder, released Pete’s Wicked Ale—the beer largely responsible for establishing the American brown ale as a commercial beer style and category for beer competitions.
Since the 80s, innovation has prevailed, giving way to many new and different twists on the old school brown ale recipe. A prime example of uniqueness found in the style is Rogue Ale’s Hazelnut Nectar. Brewery founder Jack Joyce explains that his beer involves a twist, the addition of actual nuts in the brew. “The original nut brown didn’t have nuts in it,” Joyce explains. “The hazelnut is the official nut of the Oregon, and we’re the largest hazelnut producing state in the nation.”
This modified brown ale is widely distributed and remains the brewery’s second best-selling beer, and is still, in many ways, a tradition brown recipe.
The Style Spectrum
According to the late beer writer Michael Jackson, the designation brown ale included dark-brown ales from the south of England, reddish-brown ales from the northeast of England, and even the slightly sour, brown beers of Flanders. According to the Brewers Association (BA), there are five styles of beer with the word “brown” in the title, and several more that fall into the brown color spectrum.
Recognized Brown Ale Styles
English-Style Brown Ale
English-style brown ales are copper to brown in color. Medium body, ranges from dry to sweet maltiness, and very little hop flavor or aroma. 3.3-4.7% ABV.
- Skidmark Brown Ale | Pizza Port | Ocean Beach, CA
- Downtown Brown | Lost Coast Brewing Co. | Eureka, CA
- Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale | Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co. | Kiln, MS
- Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale | Cigar City Brewing | Tampa, FL
Brown Porters are medium to dark brown (may have red tint) in color. Light- to medium-bodied, low to medium malt sweetness, caramel and chocolate notes, medium hop bitterness. 3.5-4.7% ABV.
- Out of Order Porter | Wind River Brewing Co. | Pinedale, WY
- Tamerlane Brown Porter | Black Raven Brewing Co. | Redmond, WA
- Poundage Porter | Sound Brewery | Poulsbo, WA
- Chocolate Porter | Bayhawk Ales, Inc. | Irvine, CA
Belgian-style Flanders are light- to medium-bodied deep copper to brown in color. Characterized by a slight to strong lactic sourness, low to medium bitterness and a cocoa-like character from roast malt. Oak-like or woody characters may be pleasantly integrated into overall palate. 3.8-5.2% ABV.
- Lips of Faith La Folie | New Belgium Brewing Co. | Fort Collins, CO
- Ruby Bruin | Haverhill Brewery & The Tap | Haverhill, PA
- Schlafly Oud Bruin | The St. Louis Brewery/Schlafly Beer | St. Louis, MO
German-Style Brown Ale (Düsseldorf-Style Altbier)
German-style brown ales are copper to brown in color. Medium body, malty flavor, hop character may be low to medium in the flavor and aroma. 3.6-4.4% ABV.
- Little Red Cap | Grimm Brothers Brewhouse | Loveland, CO
- TAPS Alt | TAPS Fish House & Brewery | Brea, CA
- Chuckanut Alt | Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen | Bellingham, WA
- Alt & In The Way | Squatters Pub Brewery | Salt Lake City, UT
American-Style Brown Ale
American-style brown ales are deep copper to brown in color. Medium roasted malt caramel-like and chocolate-like characters, low to medium hop flavor and aroma, medium to high hop bitterness, and a medium body. 3.3-5.0% ABV.
- Ellie’s Brown | Avery Brewing Co. | Boulder, CO
- India Brown Ale | Dogfish Head Craft Brewery | Milton, DE
- Old Brown Dog Ale | Smuttynose Brewing Co. | Portsmouth, NH
- Moose Drool Brown | Big Sky Brewing | Missoula, MT
Other Brown-Colored Styles
|English-Style Dark Mild||Old Ale|
|British-Style Imperial Stout||British-Style Barley Wine|
|Scotch Ale||Belgian-Style Dubbel|
|Belgian-Style Quadrupel||South German-Style Dunkel Weizen|
|German-Style Dark Wheat Ale|
Brown Ale Food Pairings
It may come as a surprise, but brown ales are often heralded by brewers, chefs, and beer experts as being some of the most food-friendly styles of beer.
Ray Daniels | Cicerone® Certification Program
“For consumers, I always say that brown ale is the universal food pairing beer. Malt and toasty flavors tend to resonate with lots of different foods, so it is usually going to be at least “OK” as a pairing. That makes things easy for folks who are just looking for a quick way to select a beer. Years ago I did a pairing exercise in Japan where we were looking for beer to go with different types of sushi. While there were some cases where other beers were better, I remember that for many of the pairings brown ale was about the best we could do. That was really the point that I realized brown ale’s ability to pair decently with a lot of different things.”
Adam Avery | Avery Brewing Company
“The pairings are infinite. It [Ellie’s Brown] works well with anything from Mexican food—where the sweetness cuts through spiciness—to barbecue. It’s quite meat friendly and is often times overlooked because it is not as sexy, super hoppy or alcoholic.”
Personally, I think that browns ales are some of the tastiest and most exciting styles being brewed today—hopefully, you will too!
¹While Avery lists Ellie’s Brown Ale as an American brown ale, the Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines classifies it as a northern English brown.
What’s your favorite American craft-brewed brown?