Ask a Cicerone: The Best Brown Ales
Editor's Note: Ask a what? A Certified Cicerone®. That is, a beer expert who has passed a particular certification exam administered by the Craft Beer Institute. Curious about beer certifications? Read more here.
With beer shelves full of bourbon barrel-aged coffee stouts, sour beers refermented with wine grapes, and IPAs scented with barely-a-day-old fresh hops, it can be easy to forget about less-flashy styles like the good ol' brown ale. But a brown ale can be quite delicious—especially with food. We asked our brew of beer experts for their votes: What's the best brown ale on the market today? Here are their picks, along with a few recommended bites to pair.
"Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale was the first brown I ever tried, and almost no other has stood up to it. Toasty and robust, hints of almond and cocoa powder overwhelm the palate and a touch of burnt coffee lingers after every sip. At 5.0% ABV, this easy-drinker is simple and classic, and not one to be overlooked. Keep the pairings simple and classic as well—nothing goes better with this brew than a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. Preferably Grandma's recipe."—Becki Kregoski (Bites 'n Brews)
"Just a couple of years ago, AleSmith in San Diego began to bottle their previously draft-only Nautical Nut Brown Ale. Now simply called AleSmith Nut Brown Ale, it's one of the best English-style brown ales available. It's light in body with a rich, complex malt profile and great English hop character from the light touch of Golding hops. Brown ales go great with grilled meats, sausages, and BBQ, and Nut Brown is what I grab after hitting the In-N-Out drive-through for a Double Double (Animal Style, natch)."—John Verive (Beer of Tomorrow, Beer Paper LA)
"One that will certainly work for newbies and veterans alike is Hebrew Messiah Nut Brown Ale. It has all of the chocolaty, nutty, and caramel notes that you would expect from an American brown ale but is very well balanced by Warrior, Cascade, and Liberty hops which provide a fair amount of bitterness but also some delicate pine, grassy and citrus aromas. Messiah is just a bit roasty but extremely smooth-drinking. Messiah will work wonders paired with a caramelized brisket and crispy fried latkes but is sweet and roasty enough, like coffee, to pair well with chocolate or fruity desserts."—Chris Kline (Schnuck Markets)
"I'll take an Anchor Brewing's Brekle's Brown any day. I love its rich toasty caramel malt and bright Citra hop character. It also has the Anchor "house character." I've spoken with lots of people about what the heck that's from, but the Anchor beers use a variety of yeast and hops so there's no obvious answer. So far the only thing I've come up with is the unusual use of open square fermentors for all their ales, which you can learn more about here. For nonstandard browns, I love the sour Maracaibo Especial by Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales."—Chris Cohen (San Francisco Homebrewers Guild)
"If I am drinking an American brown ale then it is probably a hopped up version such as Dogfish Head Indian Brown or something with added fruits, coffee or chocolate like Port Brewing Board Meeting. My favorite brown ales are almost always a Belgian Oud Bruin (such as Liefman's Goudenboand and Bockor Bellegems). Their subtle tart and sour flavors work in harmony with the sweet and fruity malt flavors and make for an excellent introduction to sour ales. I like these beers with goat cheese, cheesecake, dark chocolate, or as an alternative to red wine with a steak."—Tyler Morton (Taste of Tops)
"Carolina Nut Brown Ale from Carolina Brewing Company is my favorite. It's a medium bodied brown ale highlighted by a slight nutty flavor with subtle caramel and toasty undertones, without a pronounced hoppiness."—Judy Neff (Pints & Plates)
"Two of my favorites are Alesmith Nut Brown—a nutty, flavorful yet sessionable beer that uses delicate English hops and specialty malts, and Avery Ellie's Brown, which is a little more robust with hints of chocolate and brown sugar. Both are a dream with hard cheeses, roast pork, and green veggies like haricots verts or brussels sprouts."—Anne Becerra (The Ginger Man)
"Black Oak Nut Brown is an old favourite of mine. It's toasty and chocolatey with an almond-like nuttiness, and a dry, earthy finish. I also really like the classic Samuel Smith Nut Brown, with its roasted, toffeeish malt and hazel nutty finish. Both are fantastic with a nutty English Cheddar, and could go equally well with a classic Sunday roast beer dinner."—Jesse Vallins (The Saint Tavern)
"I have long felt that brown ales have been often overlooked in the beer world. One particular brown ale that is readily available near me is the amazing Lost Coast Downtown Brown. If you have ever been to a luau, you know that one of the most succulent options available is Kalua Pork. Kalua Pork is prepared by steaming pork in an underground imu or oven while covered with banana leaves to seal in all of the wonderful juicy flavors from the pig. Once the dish is pulled from the ground it is fall-off-the-bone tender, with an aroma of roast that can't be beat unless you're pairing it with a Downtown Brown. The roasted flavors that are found in both brown malt and caramelized pork skin are outstanding, while the sea salt and sweet maltiness play in wonderful contrast to each other."—Bill Carl (Southern Wine & Spirits of Hawaii)
"There are really three types of Brown Ales, all fairly different from one another. The American Brown Ale tends to be bolder, hoppier and higher in ABV than either Northern or Southern English examples. In the American Brown Ale style I LOVE Charles B. Brown from Fifty/Fifty Brewing in Truckee, CA. It has a purity of chocolate character that I love. It's 6.5% ABV and reasonably aggressive hopping rate make nearly border on a stout/porter. The best Northern English Style Brown Ale I have had this year is Albion Amber from Marin Brewing in Larkspur, CA. My favorite Brown Ale of any style is Berryessa Brewing's Whippersnapper, the Southern English Style Brown (drier, lower ABV) from Winters, CA. This beer is usually my shift drink when I finish up at the pub."—Sayre Piotrkowski (Hog's Apothecary)
"Newburgh Brown, with its rich chocolate and nutty Brazil nut flavors, is my current favorite brown ale. Consider having it with some French onion soup: the harmonies abound from the nuttiness from Gruyere cheese, the caramelization that comes from its gratinee preparation and the sweetness of the onions, as well as the toastiness of the beer linking up with the bread in the soup."—James Tai (Pinch)
"My favorite brown ales hew closer to the traditional English profile, and are malt-forward with nutty, caramel, and chocolate notes: Avery Ellie's Brown, Bell's Best Brown, and Big Sky Moose Drool come to mind. Rich comfort dishes such as shepherd's pie tend to pair well with malty browns. The caramel flavor in the beer matches the baked crust of the pie while the roast and chocolate help cut the richness of the beef."—Pat Fahey (The Cicerone Certification Program)