Brown ales may be unfashionable, but the style is timeless

Current American beer culture seems to revolve around a couple of styles: sour beers and American India pale ales. Fortunately, many brewers are also creating subtly delicious and refreshing brown ales.
Current American beer culture seems to revolve around a couple of styles: sour beers and American India pale ales. Fortunately, many brewers are also creating subtly delicious and refreshing brown ales.PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - It turns out that in beer-drinking circles I would be considered unfashionable.

Not because I insist on wearing cargo shorts or dad jeans. With the exception of Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, what do beer nerds know about stylish clothing anyway?

I don't care much about fashion, either. But I do care about the beer I drink, which apparently would be considered hopelessly uninteresting by those who follow the latest trends.

I'm talking about wonderful, thirst-quenching, conversation-inducing beers, the type that you can drink a lot of almost without noticing. Brown ale, for example. Recently, the beer panel tasted 20 examples of American brown ale, which is something of an afterthought in a beer culture awash in more au courant styles.

For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Clay Risen, deputy editor of The New York Times Op-Ed page, who has written regularly about spirits and beer, and Orr Shtuhl, a designer at Wirecutter, a product review site owned by The Times, who also writes about beer.

Current American beer culture seems to revolve around a couple of styles: sour beers, which can be altogether wonderful and fascinating, and American India pale ales, which have dominated the craft beer market for so long that it's a wonder they have not yet fallen out of fashion.

 
 

I cannot say I share the taste for these IPAs, which, with their emphasis on the imperious flavours of American hops, are the equivalent of oaky California chardonnays of the 1990s. Brown ales and like-minded styles - including straightforward lagers, pilsners and porters - to name a few, are very different sorts of beers. They occupy subtler realms, quenching thirst with pure flavours and perhaps a snappy zestiness in the case of pilsner and a rich depth in the case of porter. They are not flamboyant styles that wow with complexity or make themselves the centers of attention. They simply satisfy.

"It's the kind of beer that gets left behind in our IPA culture," Orr said.

Clay had a more charitable explanation. "In the 1990s, everybody made brown ales or porters," he said. "It makes sense that a new generation would want to do something different."

In the 1970s and 1980s, early craft brewers were motivated by what seemed lost. Back then, American beer culture was dominated by the insipid lagers of the big brewers. Dozens of classic styles, developed over centuries of brewing, had largely been abandoned. Porters, amber ales, India pale ales, brown ales - English styles mostly - had been read about more than tasted.

Inspired by England's Campaign for Real Ale movement, many American craft brewers set about resurrecting these styles first. Their success, coupled with similar efforts in other countries, encouraged further experimentation, with German and Belgian styles and beyond, as well as a fair amount of creative boundary-pushing.

Some of the results were augmented styles, in which characteristics were exaggerated, sometimes to good effect, but often beyond balance. Hoppy IPAs, for example, became double or even triple IPAs.

Over time, the trend toward amplification spawned a countermovement promoting session beers, brews that toned down the volume and alcohol without sacrificing flavor.

American brown ales, which tend mostly to be in the range of 5 to 6 per cent alcohol, do not quite fit the definition of session beers, which typically are around 4 per cent. They also have more discernible hop flavours than their classic English counterpart, and occasionally are brewed with additions like nuts or seeds. But brown ales are relaxed and easygoing, pure and pleasing, with flavours that are subtle rather than flamboyant.

Our favourites in the tasting all leaned toward the textbook style: malty, with flavours of chocolate, coffee or, sometimes, dried fruit. Mostly these brown ales were dry and nutty, although sometimes they left an impression of sweetness - Clay found that some had a surprising flavour of strawberry candy.

We also noted a few examples of experimentation, some more successful than others. Dogfish Head's Indian Brown Ale, as its name indicates, combines the characteristics of brown ale with those of an IPA, quite successfully in our opinion. It was fuller bodied with more alcohol and hoppy bitterness than in a classic brown ale, but it also had discernible malt and chocolate flavours. Overall, it was well integrated enough to be No. 5 among our favourites.

Other similar efforts were so dominated by hops that we had no clue to the style of the beer in the glass.

Now, I should point out that beer tastings, particularly with styles like brown ale, have gotten complicated for us. For these blind tastings, we include only beers that we have purchased from retail outlets.

Some craft beers are distributed nationally, but many of the best are available only in various local markets. In previous years, we could order beers from different parts of the country. But a recent crackdown on interstate shipping of wine applies to beer as well. So for this tasting, we were restricted to those American brown ales that were available in the New York market.

Even so, our No. 1 beer was the Humboldt Brown Hemp Ale, from Arcata, California, which was brewed with hemp seeds. The hemp supposedly adds an herbal component, but for us the beer seemed quite classic, dry with a creamy texture and flavours of malt, chocolate and dried fruits.

No. 2 was Brooklyn Brown Ale, brewed in Utica, New York, which had pure, grainy flavours, while No. 3, Bell's Best Brown Ale from Comstock, Michigan, was balanced and subtle. Black Hog's Granola Brown Ale, from Oxford, Connecticut, No. 4 on our list, was actually brewed with granola. It was slightly tart, with a tobacco flavour and a refreshing bitterness that prompts the next sip.

Others worth mentioning in the tasting include the rich and creamy Maduro Brown Ale from Cigar City in Tampa, Florida, which was brewed with oatmeal, and the smoky, textured Georgia Brown from SweetWater in Atlanta.

We also had three outliers at the bottom of our top 10, including the Nut Brown Lager from Kelso in Brooklyn - which as a lager rather than an ale really did not fit the category, but we liked its malty, cola flavours; the Durty Mud Season Hoppy Brown Ale from Smuttynose in Hampton, New Hampshire, which was full-bodied and strong at 8.4 per cent alcohol but balanced and delicious despite its assertiveness; and the Hazelnut Brown Nectar from Rogue in Newport, Oregon, which was on the edge of sweetness, with flavours of buttercrunch candy and hazelnuts.

Aware that our choice was limited and that our tasting was more of a local cross section than a complete look, Orr mentioned three beers that he wished had been in our tasting: Boffo Brown Ale from Dark Horse in Marshall, Michigan; Brown Ale from Newburgh in Newburgh, New York; and Brown Ale from Duck-Rabbit in Farmville, North Carolina.

We all found the tasting stimulating, even if the style supposedly does not inspire much excitement among beer nerds. Well made, subtly delicious and refreshing are high accolades, as far as I am concerned, and brown ale fits that bill. Fortunately, many brewers still seem to feel the same way.

Tasting Notes

Humboldt Brown Ale Brewed With Hemp Seeds, Arcata, California, 5.7 per cent

Three and a half stars

Dry, creamy and well balanced with lingering flavours of malt, chocolate and dried fruits.

Brooklyn Brown Ale, Utica, New York, 5.6 per cent

Three stars

Relaxed and pure with flavors of grain, coffee and chocolate.

Bell's Best Brown Ale, Comstock, Michigan., 5.8 per cent

Three stars

Balanced, subtle and easy to drink, with flavours of coffee and chocolate.

Black Hog Granola Brown Ale, Oxford, Connecticut, 5.7 per cent

Two-and-a-half stars

Slightly tart, with flavours of coffee and tobacco, and a bitterness that lingers pleasantly.

Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale, Wilmington, Delaware, 7.2 per cent

Two-and-a-half stars

Full-bodied and rich, with flavours of chocolate and malt, well-integrated hop bitterness and a touch of heat.

Cigar City Maduro Brown Ale, Tampa, Florida, 5.5 per cent

Two-and-a-half stars

Rich, creamy aromas, with flavours of chocolate, toffee and grain.

SweetWater Georgia Brown, Atlanta, 5.8 per cent

Two-and-a-half stars

Rich and thickly textured, with smoky flavours of chocolate and grain.

Kelso Nut Brown Lager, Brooklyn, New York, 5.75 per cent

Two stars

Well balanced, with flavours of malt, cola and dried fruits.

Smuttynose Durty Mud Season Hoppy Brown Ale, Hampton, New Hampshire, 8.4 per cent

Two stars

Strong and full-bodied, with flavours of malt, dried fruits and sourdough bread.

Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar, Newport, Oregon, 5.6 per cent

Two stars

Not quite sweet, but on the edge, with flavours of buttercrunch, spice cake and hazelnuts.

What the stars mean: Ratings, up to four stars, reflect the panel's reaction to the beers, which were tasted with names concealed. The beers represent a selection generally available in good retail shops and restaurants and on the internet.

Tasting coordinator: Bernard Kirsch.