I can't tell you how many times I've heard brewers and beer-drinkers alike say, "I don't care for brown ales. They're boring." If you ask me, this dismissal of the style is undeserved. A well-made brown is a symphony of toffee, nuts, and toast. Chocolate notes provide the bass line, while moderate hop bitterness brings a brassy middle. The high notes are played by grassy, earthy or citrusy hop flavors that dance delicately on top. Far from boring, good brown ales are lovely beers; not too heavy and not too roasty—perfect for the in-between weather of fall.
Brown ales are also great with fall foods, when meals start to take on a little more heft; not quite the hearty comfort food of winter, but also not the corn salads of summer. It's harvest time. Root veggies and winter squash start to enter the vocabulary. The in-between flavors of brown ale match perfectly to the culinary character of fall.
Brown ales are among my favorite beers to pair with cheese. They are fantastic with the nutty flavors of hard cheeses like aged Gouda or young Comte. They stand up well with milder cheddars and blue cheeses. Here are a few tips for filling your cheese plate.
One of my favorite beer/cheese pairings of all time is Surly Bender with Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an award-winning, raw-milk cheese from Uplands Dairy in Wisconsin. Nutty notes in the cheese speak to the nutty and roasty flavors in the beer. Grassiness from the grass-fed cow's milk complements the hops, while Bender's light caramel picks up the cheese's buttery, sweet-cream. Carbonation and hops leave your palate cleansed and ready for the next cheese. The angels sing for me when I taste this combination.
The balanced flavors of Sierra Nevada's fall seasonal Tumbler work well with a mild blue cheese like Mycella. The cheese is less salty than some, so it doesn't overpower the beer. The light roast and grassy hops pull out the cheese's tang and funk. The nutty/toffee notes in this beer also make it a great match for the nuttiness and soft fruit of a mild cheddar like Prairie Breeze.
More intensely-flavored, aged, hard cheeses can take a bigger brown ale. Try Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale with an aged Gouda. It's got the nuts and the toast, along with some dark chocolate and dark fruit flavors to pull out the nutty and fruity complexities in the cheese.
American-style brown ales have a hopped up profile and robust, nutty/roasty flavor that makes them ideal with grilled red meats. Try Bell's Best Brown or Moose Drool Brown Ale with a rare, grilled steak. The surface char grabs hold of the roasted malt while caramel notes massage the sinewy sweetness of the meat. Don't forget to crack some coarse black pepper on the steak to really ace the pairing.
Northern English brown ales have a less intense profile that favors caramel, nut, and toast flavors over roasty ones. The malt is balanced by moderate bitterness and light grassy or earthy hops. While these beers will stand up to a steak, I prefer them with milder meats. Wychwood Hobgoblin is nice with grilled sausages. Try the old standby Newcastle Brown Ale with an herb-rubbed lamb chop. The herbs tie in nicely to the hops in this beer.
One more excellent option: brown ale and a roast beef sandwich. Add a bit of horseradish sauce and a mild cheddar cheese and it's even better. A lighter American-style brown like Brooklyn Brown Ale works here, as does a classic English brown like Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale. The earthy spice of horseradish speaks to the subtle earthiness of the hops. The grainy toast and roast offer a complement to the beef. A bit of caramel sweetness ties it all together.
The change of seasons brings with it a bounty of sweet winter squash and earthy root vegetables. While a sweeter beer like doppelbock might be my first instinct when I think of these seasonal foods, a brown ale can work just as well—or better.
All you really need is a pan full of vegetables and a hot oven, but if you're looking to get a little more complex, try a gratin of acorn squash and wild rice. Acorn squash mixes its buttery sweetness with a subtle nuttiness that works well with a brown. But it's the wild rice that really sells the pairing. It pulls out the nutty notes in the beer—try a caramel-laced brew like Smuttynose Old Dog Brown Ale. The nutty flavors of New Glarus Fat Squirrel also pair brilliantly.
Sausage and rutabaga baked with gruyere is another great fall-veggie pairing for brown ale. The rutabagas bring an earthy sweetness that touches on the subtle flavors of earthy English hops, while gruyere adds nutty undertones. Try this with Avery Ellie's Brown Ale or Goose Island Nut Brown Ale.
These are only a few suggestions, though. What's your favorite brown ale? What do you like to eat with it?
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. He is the author of an upcoming travel guide to breweries in the upper Midwest, to be published by the University of Illinois Press. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint