The Humble Brown Ale is Poised for a Mighty Comeback
While IPAs inspire wrap-around lines outside of breweries and sour ales bring beer lovers to Maine in droves, the brown ale has become a forgotten beer style. I mean, even the word “brown” inspires as much excitement as a pair of chino pants.
I bet you’re so meh towards brown ales that you even considered not reading this post when you discovered it was focused solely on browns. But it’s time to rethink your relationship with the modest brown ale.
Over the past few years, Maine brewers have begun releasing delectable brown ales that highlight the vast spectrum of flavors found inside this malt-forward style of beer, causing me to reconsider my own blasé stance on brown ales. So, as the cold air of fall and winter approaches, let’s give props to the oft-overlooked brown ale.
Taking a deep dive into the world of browns, you find it’s not an easy style to define. The brown ale is wedged somewhere between amber ales and porters. They are generally, well, brown in appearance, ranging from a golden hazel to deep walnut. Getting the bulk of their character from roasted malts, brown ales exude a number of different flavors: toasted cereal, sweet raisin, roasted coffee, and milk chocolate. Unlike porters or stouts, brown ales generally have a crisp ale finish from the use of American or English ale yeast.
Maine brewers are such a talented lot that when they start making a style, I take notice, even if it isn’t something that typically makes my palate tingle with anticipation.
The first Maine-brewed brown ale that caught my attention was the Burnside Brown from FOUNDATION BREWING.
Poured from a can, Burnside has an opaque mocha hue. Putting my nose right into the glass, I pick up nutty notes with hints of nutmeg. A swig of Burnside releases flavors of freshly roasted coffee beans, subtle molasses, and a delicate undercurrent of cocoa. As the beer warms up, it releases bigger milk chocolate notes on the palate. Like any brown ale worth its weight in malt, Burnside has a beautiful finish of brown sugar and crisp ale yeast. Crushing a few Burnsides by a fire this fall should be at the top of your priority list.
“If someone likes darker chocolate or coffee flavors, they will like Burnside,” said John Bonney, co-owner of Foundation Brewing. “People who sometimes find a full pint of a brown ale too sweet by the end of the glass usually don’t have that problem with Burnside.”
At my local beverage store a few months ago, I spotted a four-pack of Libbytown Brown Ale from BUNKER BREWING. Known for their artfully crafted lagers and ales, such as the much-lauded Machine Czech Pils, I knew I had to give Bunker’s brown ale my attention. And damn if this beer didn’t wrap around my tongue like a velour suit.
“We all love IPAs but there’s something great about leaving the hops in the background and really letting the malt character of a beer shine,” said Bunker brewmaster and owner, Chresten Sorenson, when asked what inspired the addition of a brown ale to Bunker’s portfolio.
The first words that come to mind when describing Libbytown Brown Ale are luscious and decadent. Descriptors I never imagined using for a brown ale. Ever.
Libbytown pours an espresso brown and emanates notes of dark chocolate and subtle roasted malts. Swishing a gulp of this brown ale around my mouth releases traces of cocoa nibs and brown sugar. The real pièce de résistance for this beer is its mouthfeel; it is so creamy and silky that it borders on a stout feel on the tongue. But the finish is all ale yeast and chocolate milk. Libbytown is the kind of beer all browns should aspire to be.
In addition to these fine brown ales from Foundation and Bunker, Maine boasts a number of other noteworthy browns. Dry-hopped with American hops, Bangor Brown Ale from GEAGHAN BROTHERS BREWING will satisfy beer lovers looking for a hopped-up brown. The new ownership at GEARY’S BREWING has released a brown ale lush with molasses notes and a clean finish. And Samara Brown from LONE PINE BREWING clocks in at seven percent, brewed with coffee beans from Bard Coffee in Portland.
Maine brewers have shown that the brown ale is kind of like that nerdy girl in an ’80s movie who takes off her glasses and is suddenly transformed into a total babe. As the winter months inspire you to seek malty brews, reach for one of Maine’s beautifully crafted brown ales to see what you’ve been missing.
— Text: Dave Patterson. Dave is a novelist and freelance writer from Cape Elizabeth with a mighty thirst for craft beer.