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Serious Beer: American Brown Ale
We've rated brown ales brewed in the United States before, as well as their brethren from the style's ancestral homeland, England. But we've far from exhausted the category, so we decided to try a few more from breweries around the country.
Brown ales are known for smooth, easy drinking; made for quaffing pint after pint at your local. We sample some in that traditional style from all around the States, but also tried a few brews where American ingenuity has been applied with plenty of impact and success.
Do you have a favorite brown ale?
Serious Beer Ratings5/5 Mindblowing; a new favorite
4/5 Awesome, stock up on this
3/5 Around average for the style
2/5 There are probably better options
1/5 No, thanks, I'll have water.
Traditional Brown Ales
Surly Bender, Minnesota 5.1% ABV
The nose is mild, with notes of toasted bread and Cola. Sweet cocoa malts blend nicely with orange citrus bitterness, and fade out slowly, leaving behind brown sugar and oats. The carbonation is low and the body is light, but Bender is smooth and balanced enough that you barely notice. This is the kind of brown ale you can drink all evening.
Bear Republic Pete's Brown (Tribute Ale), California 6.3% ABV
Burnt brown sugar and sour cherries fill the aroma, and feature in the beginning of the flavor. A stiff bitterness from earthy, piney hops stands up to toasted malt and leaves behind a gentle bite in the finish. The mouthfeel is round despite low carbonation, and Pete's Brown is a pleasure to drink.
Cigar City Maduro Brown Ale, Florida 5.5% ABV
Oatmeal and champagne aromas are a surprise, but the flavor is exactly as expected for a brown ale. This creamy, foamy beer delivers mild flavors filled with roasted nuts and caramel, which linger on the tongue until you're ready for your next sip.
Ithaca Nut Brown Ale, New York 5.4% ABV
Creamy dark chocolate and coffee flavors fade to rich, roasted nuts and sweet caramel. Floral notes and lemon sourness suggest a zippy beer, but while it's well-balanced, the carbonation is mild and the body is thin.
Big Sky Brewing Moose Drool Brown Ale, Montana 5.1% ABV
Roasted and burnt malt flavors combine with cocoa and dark brown bread to make up most of the character of this brew. The hops provide some dryness in the finish, but are otherwise undetectably mild.
Bar Harbor Brewing Thunder Hole Ale, Maine 4.8% ABV
Thunder Hole is a spot in Acadia National Park where waves crash dramatically and eponymously. But this understated, easy-drinking beer doesn't match its name. The toasted nut flavors common in brown ales are joined by less-common raisins, which leave behind a slightly sour finish.
Gritty's Best Brown, Maine 5.1% ABV
Toffee, caramel, and butterscotch provide a pleasantly sweet backbone for this beer, but a thin body and metallic notes knock it down a couple of notches for us.
Unusual Brown Ales
Cigar City Cubano-Style Espresso Brown Ale, Florida 5.5% ABV
There's no joking around with the coffee here—this beer smells like you stuck your nose in a coffee grinder and tastes like you ordered a mocha. It's earthy and rich, and has a round, thick body with tiny bubbles that evoke crema. Vanilla, cocoa, toffee, and sweet cream reminded me more of baristas than bartenders. If you go to the bottle expecting that, it's superbly done.
Surly Coffee Bender, Minnesota 5.1% ABV
The cold-brewed coffee in this beer comes through in the aroma, carries through the finish, and blends nicely with nutty roasted malts and bittersweet chocolate. The bitterness of the coffee and hops are both toned down, and the carbonation is low, making this a smooth and gentle brew.
Cigar City Bolita Double Nut Brown, Florida 9.0% ABV
The aroma is intense, with notes of hazelnut, dark chocolate, bread dough, and caramel. The intense and powerful flavor lingers in a long finish; sweet toffee, coconut, macadamia, and coffee swirl around with a mild herbal bitterness and fruity tartness. The mouthfeel is creamy, and some alcohol is apparent. This beer succeeds by being pretty good at everything.
Cigar City Improv Oatmeal Rye India-Style Brown Ale, Florida, 9.0% ABV
Intense grapefruit aromas steal the show, elbowing out most of the nutty malts. Citrus notes also star in the flavor, with a strong supporting act by sour and spicy rye. Nuts, caramel, and toffee also make cameos, and even at 9% ABV, we were ready for an encore.
Disclosure: Cigar City, Bear Republic, Surly, and Big Sky beers were provided as samples for review.
About the Author: Nick Leiby is a Boston-based scientist and homebrewer. When he's not drinking yeast, he's probably studying it in lab.