Serious Beer: Brown Ales from England and Beyond

Beer Reviews

Seeking out the best in malty, hoppy refreshment.


[Photographs: Maggie Hoffman]



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Brown ale was once the beer of the British masses. In the late 1700s, fancier folks began to favor the newfangled pale ales. (Pale malt was more expensive to process than wood-fired darker malt, making pale ale a bit of a luxury drink.) But low-alcohol brown ales were perfect for fueling long days of hard work and long evenings in the pub. A good brown ale is gentle, smooth, and wonderfully drinkable—pint after pint.

Despite their low alcohol, these are flavorful beers. They tend towards maltiness, reminding some of our tasters of bagels and malted milkshakes, which is not really a bad thing. English-style brown ales aren't heavily hopped, but they manage to avoid being sweet or heavy.

They're perfect for fall, with a whisper of chocolate and walnut. Our favorite brown ales would be delicious with roast pork tenderloin or chops. It's worth considering serving brown ale at your Thanksgiving dinner: the toffee flavors in the beer would pair well with a crisp-skinned turkey and any caramelized bits of mushroom in the stuffing.

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.

A Top Notch Pint

Wychwood Hobgoblin Dark English Ale Oxfordshire, England 5.2% ABV This flavorful, drinkable beer is almost red in color. Rich malt and caramel flavors are prevalent, though a touch of bitterness keeps things balanced. A hint of chamomile seemed to mingle with the yeasty, bready notes. This mellow and smooth ale was our favorite among this bunch. ***1/2

Newcastle Brown Ale Dunston, England 4.7% ABV Fresh, smooth, and well balanced—we could drink this rosy brown beer all day. Malt and toffee flavors blend pleasantly with a light bitterness. Some tasters noticed a hint of orange-peel flavor. This is not a super complex brew, but it's perfect for fall: It's crisp, warm, and refreshing. This could be a good entry-level beer for folks who like their beers mild and fruity. ***1/2

We Wouldn't Refuse Another Round

20091022coopersbrownale.jpgSamuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale Tadcaster, England 5% ABV At first sip, we tasted toasted malt and a hint of juicy pear. Bracing bitterness followed and cleaned the palate. The finish is a minerally and dry—supposedly a result of limestone sediment in the brewery's water. ***

Coopers Brewery Dark Ale Regency Park, South Australia 4.5% ABV No, it's not from England. But this brown ale is worth mentioning. It's substantial and a little nutty, with just enough bitterness to balance the warm coffee flavor. Some tasted a hint of licorice, and the malty notes reminded one of our tasters of an old-fashioned chocolate phosphate. ***

Not Quite What We're Looking For

Moorhouse's Black Cat Lancashire, England 3.4% ABV Black Cat, indeed—this beer is seriously dark in color, though it's surprisingly light-bodied. The roasted malt in this beer crosses the line over to smokiness; this is almost like a Rauchbier. "It's like they waved bacon over the barrel," remarked one taster. Peaty flavors mingle with dry chocolate—this could be a good beer to drink with meat you've charred on the grill. **

Don't worry, American brown ales are on tap next week.