Serious Beer: American Brown Ales

Beer Reviews

Seeking out the best in malty, hoppy refreshment.


[Photographs: Maggie Hoffman]

Last week, we enjoyed some malty brown ales from England. But those beers didn't really prepare us for the brown ales produced by American craft breweries. While some of these beers take after their British forefathers, others diverge widely from the classic style.

We tried bright, hoppy brown ales and sweet, pruney brown ales; rich, heavy brown ales and dry, lighter ones; reddish brown ales and blackish ones. Often, the bottles gave no clue as to what style was inside. We tasted ten different beers to give you the scoop.

While one brown ale stood out as a clear favorite among all our tasters, we hope you'll look more closely at the descriptions than the stars this week. Are you looking for a warming, chocolately beer to sip on a rainy night? Or something with a bitter kick to see you through the World Series? We've split the brown ales into two categories, with separate rankings for each.

Don't buy a six-pack until you've checked out the tasting notes after the jump.

Serious Beer Ratings

***** Our new favorite **** Awesome, worth remembering *** We'd consider buying this again ** There are probably better options * No, thanks, I'll have water.

Ratings are subject to personal taste.

Our Chosen Beer

He'Brew Messiah Bold New York, 5.65% ABV Don't be put off by the puns on the label—this could really be "the beer you've been waiting for." This nutty-scented, deep ruby-brown beer is everything we liked about the other brown ales without their flaws. Deeply flavored but not heavy, smooth and mellow but not sweet: this beer is balanced, rich, and complex. A hoppy brightness peeks out from under the coffee, cinnamon, and walnut flavors. ****1/2

On the Sweeter Side

Avery Brewing Ellie's Brown Ale Colorado, 5.8% ABV This nicely balanced beer smells a bit like a chocolate milkshake and has a mellow malty sweetness. Some of our tasters noticed a hint of pecan and others said this beer reminded them of maple syrup. A nice fall beer with a bit of toasted coffee aftertaste. ***

Rogue Morimoto Hazelnut Signature Ale Oregon, 6.2% ABV You're likely to see this in a Morimoto bottle in any city where the famed chef has a restaurant, but it's the same Hazelnut Brown Nectar Rogue's been brewing (based on a homebrewer's recipe) since 1994. There's natural hazelnut extract in it, which mingles with the caramel-chocolate flavors of the beer: it's like spiked Nutella in a glass. One taster named this her favorite of the brown ales, while others felt like it needed a bit more tang. This paired well with nutty cheese, and could be served with a dessert course. ***

Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale New Hampshire, 6.7% ABV This slightly sweet brown ale has notes of prune, apricot, and brown sugar. This beer is warming, and bit heavier than some of the others we tried, without much hop presence. ***

Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale Delaware, 7.2% ABV This mahogany brown beer has deep raisiny flavors. It's chocolatey and mellow, a little sweet and rich. This is a sipping beer, with a bit more alcohol than standard in the other brown ales we tasted. **

Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron Delaware, 12% ABV If you're looking for an intense brown ale, this might be for you. This potent beer is brewed in wooden vessels, lending a hint of vanilla to the flavor. We tasted roasted fruit, raisins and prunes, but it was a bit too sweet and boozy for us. *1/2

Crisp Brown Ales

Tröegs Rugged Trail Nut Brown Pennsylvania, 4.4% ABV This beer has a hoppy bite and lots of lingering caramel flavor. It has nice toasted malt and molasses flavors. If you're a fan of hops, then this might be the perfect brown ale for you. ***

Peak Organic Nut Brown Ale Maine, 4.7% ABV This beer seems to be modeled after Newcastle Brown—it's similarly light and malty, with a refreshing bitterness. This is a drinkable beer for fall, with a bit of nuttiness and crisp carbonation. ***

Abita Turbodog Louisiana, 5.6% ABV This one is quite dark in color, but it tastes light and crisp. It's a clean, dry brew with a quick finish. ***

Brooklyn Brown Ale New York, 5.5% AV This chestnut-brown ale has a hint of juniper-scented hops and a fresh flavor. There's a bit of bitterness up front, though the aftertaste is smooth and nutty. Caramel malts contribute nicely, though they are slightly overpowered by the hops. **1/2