Why Brown Ale is Back (Plus 9 to Try)


Brown Ales are the Rodney Dangerfields of beer—they get no respect. Often perceived as an overstayed holdover of the '90s "microbrewery" phenomenon, they evoke images of beer bellied bros in musty brewpubs with stale popcorn and loud TVs. The style is nothing if not familiar—Newcastle Brown Ale, one of the classics of the genre, is one of the first imported beers that many of us drink during college. It's also an easily enjoyable craft brew for beginners.

Like many neglected styles, however, the brown ale is gaining newfound traction thanks to refinement and experimentation on the part of brewers, as well as rediscovery among eager drinkers. Because of their mild, nutty flavors and dialed back hop aromas, today's brown ales are also easy-drinking and great for pairing with food, especially with Maillard-enriched dishes like roasted root vegetables, grilled chicken, and caramelized onions. From balanced English-style brown ales to funky, wood-aged Belgian oud bruins, here are nine of our favorites.

Surly Brewing Co. Bender

(American Brown Ale; 5.1% ABV)

Minnesota's Surly has crafted an entire brewery around brown ale. Their medium-bodied flagship beer, Bender, is roasty, assertively hopped, and silky smooth with hints of cocoa, coffee, vanilla, and caramel—a traditional brown ale amped up for the 21st century. It's also worth seeking out the Bender variants such as Coffee Bender and draft-only Cocoa Bender, both of which can be found in Surly's Midwest-only markets now.

Midnight Sun Brewing Kodiak

(American Brown Ale; 5% ABV)

Kodiaks may be the biggest and baddest of the brown bear species, but this light-bodied (read: chuggable) mahogany-colored ale from Anchorage-based Midnight Sun Brewing is categorically mild, almost reserved. The aroma is all coffee and chocolate milk, while the flavor is comforting and mellow with subtle cocoa, hazelnut, and espresso notes.

Against the Grain The Brown Note

(English Brown Ale; 5% ABV)

Against the Grain Brewery is the puerile provocateur of American craft beer, releasing beers like Kentucky Ryed Chiquen—a barrel-aged rye ale packaged with actual chicken feathers glued to the bottleneck—and the delightful Brown Note, a tastelessly named brown ale adorned with an equally unsavory, "skid marked" tighty whities label. Thankfully the beer is delicious, with biscuity toffee flavors from English malts and a mild citrusy aroma from American-grown Cascade hops. Class it up if you must by pouring it into a glass and tossing the unseemly can.

Alesmith Brewing Co. Nut Brown

(English Brown Ale; 5% ABV)

San Diego's AleSmith makes a straightforward, eminentely drinkable nut brown ale. It's nutty, roasty, and savory with hints of toasted bread and black walnut. Many English-style brown ales are slightly sweet, but this version dials back the malt's sweetness and ups the earthy hops and toasty char.

Uerige Sticke

(German Altbier; 6.5% ABV)

The altbier style originated in the western German city of Düsseldorf, based on a cold-working ale yeast that ferments at temperatures closer to lagers than those of typical ale strains. The strain produces fruity flavors that are mellowed by the long, cool fermentation, resulting in a flavorful but crisp brown beer. Uerige's Sticke (pronounced "schtick-uh", meaning "secret" in the local vernacular) is a distinctive altbier offshoot that has all the fruity and refreshing aspects of altbier but is thicker, higher in alcohol, and more bitter than traditional varieties. Though it's continuously released in bottles, the beer is traditionally served at the brewery just twice a year—on the third Tuesday in January and October.

New Belgium La Folie

(Sour Brown Ale; 7% ABV)

Tart, malty, and a tad funky, Belgian-style oud bruins ("old brown") are unlike any other brown ales in the world. Native to the Flanders region, most are fermented with "wild" yeast and bacteria strains, aged in upright wood barrels for at least a year, and the bottle conditioned, resulting in complex, layered flavors and a viscous, chewy mouthfeel. La Folie, from Colorado's New Belgium, is an American version that sticks steadfastly to the Flemish script—it's aged in oak foeders for up to three years, blended with younger oud bruin, and then bottled. The sour ale is funky and tart, reminiscent of green apples, tart cherries, and cider vinegar but with a malty, caramel sweetness that balances the acidity.

Funky Buddha Brewery French Toast

(Double Brown Ale; 8.8% ABV)

Beers inspired by food tend to be impressionistic and hokey at best, downright awful at worst. But South Florida's Funky Buddha has a way with these styles (their most famous beer is the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter, nailing not only deliciousness but also finesse and palatability. French Toast smells like skillet full of, well, French toast—cinnamon, sugar, maple, and custard—with nary a hop or grain to be found. On the palate it's sticky and thick as syrup, a delectable departure from tradition.

Prairie Artisan Ales Coffee Okie

(Imperial Brown Ale; 13% ABV)

Wake up and smell the...beer? Tulsa-based Prairie Artisan Ales crafts this imperial brown ale (Okie) and ages it in Bourbon barrels before dropping in whole coffee beans. The flavors are intense, with coffee, caramel, and oak dominating the nose and a tinge of vanilla, licorice, and brown sugar on the finish.

Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron

(Imperial Brown Ale; 12% ABV)

This boozy, boundary-pushing imperial brown ale tastes like a fudgy chocolate brownie in a glass. Dogfish Head ages it in massive 10,000-gallon fermentation vessels made from hard, oily palo santo ("holy wood") from Paraguay. In the glass, it's inky and viscous, resembling blackstrap molasses. The first sniff is heavily perfumed with freshly roasted coffee and chocolate, while the wood adds earthy vanilla and licorice notes. The finish is drawn out and sweet with a mouth-coating richness that's warm and lasting.