Brown ales are nothing new to the beer world. Traditionally an English style, brown ales were spawned from mild ales as sweet, malty selections of full body and medium alcohol. The hop profile of these selections is typically low—light on aroma, flavor and overall bitterness—allowing the malt char acteristics to take center stage and truly shine. Some producers prefer a leaner profile, with cleansing carbonation to lift the roasty characteristics, while others might drill down into the rich, malty, nutty goodness that some people can’t get enough of.
American versions are often quite similar to their European counterparts, although they often use American ingredients, including hops. Like most American beer styles, the hop profile is often amped up a degree or two (or even three or four) from traditionally styled examples, and with that might also come an increase in alcohol, especially for producers looking to make imperial-style selections.
These hop additions can result in some blurred lines when it comes to knowing what to expect from any given American brown ale. Some may be brewed in a more traditional style, while others might be more of a hybrid of the brown ale and IPA styles, even though official style guidelines for American-style brown ales list low to moderate hop characteristics. Although sometimes labeled as Brown IPA, your best bet for knowing what to expect is to read the beer’s label for indications of style or IBUs, or check out the producer’s Web site for more recipe specifics.
In addition to these brown beauties, we also review a handful of seasonal selections. Some are winter releases while others are scheduled for spring, but either way, they’ll get you through the change of season with ease and good taste.
92 Smuttynose Durty Mud Season Hoppy Brown Ale (American Brown Ale; Smuttynose Brewing Company, NH). This new brew originally comes from one of Smutty’s Short Batch releases, but makes its seasonal debut this spring. It’s a wonderful balance of rich, toasty brown-ale characteristics and bright, citrusy hop notes. The hop profile leads on the nose, with forward scents of grapefruit peel and pine resin, while the malty core of caramel, toffee and brown-bread flavors flesh out the creamy palate. The finish is dry and astringent, with good length and a kiss of bittersweet cocoa flavor.
abv: 8.4% Price: $9/12 oz 6 pack
90 Karl Strauss Fullsuit Belgian-style Brown Ale (Belgian-style Brown Ale; Karl Strauss Brewing Company, CA). Aged on French oak chips, this leads with toasty aromas of roasted nuts, charred wood and vanilla-caramel sauce, with supporting notes of brown-bread dough, toasted malt, toffee and dried hops. The spicy yeast notes of clove and pepper, as well as a touch of banana, unfold on the creamy mouth and linger through the close. Despite the rich, sweet aromas and flavors, it’s well balanced, clean and easy to drink.
abv: 6.3% Price: $10/12 oz 6 pack
90 Uinta Bristlecone Brown Ale (English Brown Ale; Uinta Brewing, UT). A refreshing and well-balanced selection, this is a smooth and clean brown ale that also happens to be quite sessionable thanks to its easygoing profile and low alcohol. Flirty scents of caramel malt, peanut shells, weak coffee and brown bread dance in the bouquet and continue through to the light-bodied palate. Brisk carbonation keeps the mouthfeel bright and lively, with just a notion of bitter, earthy hop that unfolds on the finish.
abv: 4.3% Price: $9/12 oz 6 pack
88 Alaskan Winter Ale Brewed with Spruce Tips (Old Ale; Alaskan Brewing Company, AK). Traditional English old ales are quite full and malty, and this adheres closely to that style thanks to a round, lush mouthfeel, creamy texture and moderate alcohol. The addition of Sitka spruce tips, as well as Pacific Northwest and European hops, add interesting layers of aroma and flavor; they lift the sweet-malt scents on the nose and weight of the palate, with tones of pine resin, citrus oil and, of course, spruce. As we say goodbye to winter, it’s a sweet companion for the remaining chilly nights.
abv: 6.4% Price: $8/22 oz
88 Hangar 24 Craft Brewery Hullabaloo Winter Beer (Scottish Ale; Hangar 24 Craft Brewery, CA). This is a friendly, warm and round winter beer, perfect for those looking for a bit more weight and a little less spice to their seasonal selections. Rich notes of caramel, roasted malt, toasted hazelnut and a touch of boozy warmth fill the nose and mouth, with a subtle, citrusy hop kick thanks to the addition of American and English hops. The mouthfeel is light, with fine carbonation but a clean, lightly bitter finish.
abv: 6.5% Price: $9/12 oz 4 pack
87 Samuel Adams Cold Snap (Witbier; The Boston Beer Company, MA). Sam Adams is definitely thinking outside the box with this one, as it’s not really your typical spring beer, but more a classically summer style. A white ale brewed with a blend of 10 fruits, flowers and spices, this boasts a light and friendly profile, with a core of clean wheat and citrus notes that are accented by hints of coriander, white pepper, orange peel and allspice. Despite the herbal and spice complexities, it remains harmonious and balanced on the palate, ending clean and fresh.
abv: 5.3% Price: $10/12 oz 6 pack
85 Shiner Holiday Cheer (Dunkelweizen; Spoetzl Brewery, TX). This holiday beer, brewed with peaches and pecans, sounds like it’s going to be a mouthful, but in reality, it’s quite light and easygoing. Upfront aromas of juicy peach, roasted nuts, caramel and molasses abound on the nose, while the aromas are more subdued and focused, with toasted malt, wheat and yeasty spice tones. High carbonation keeps the palate bright, ending quick and clean.
abv: 5.4% Price: $8/12 oz 6 pack