Brown ales could use an image overhaul. Up against beers with “barrel-aged” and “imperial” in their names, how could a drab name like “brown ale” compete? Nevertheless, the classic, loosely defined style is worth another look. As the temperatures start to drop, brown ales offer a sessionable and food-friendly alternative to the almighty pumpkin beer.
According The Oxford Companion to Beer, “the term ‘brown ale’ can easily be confusing, or at least not much more useful than the term “red wine.’” That confusion, however, is part of its allure, as the style leaves brewers plenty of room for interpretation. Generally speaking, a traditional English-style brown ale is low on hops and alcohol, with lightly roasted flavors that often translate to slight nuttiness and caramel sweetness. American versions tend to crank everything up, increasing the hops, darkening the roast and pumping up the ABV.
The relative mildness of brown ales makes them perfect accompaniments for a range of autumnal meals. “The toasty, sweet malt character of brown ales goes very nicely with a wide variety of spices and flavor,” explains Barrett Goddard of Full Pint Brewing, who makes the rye-based, slightly smoky Little Brown Ale. While crisp lagers and pilsners are a great match for summer fare, heavier dishes call for something slightly more robust. Where stouts and porters can overwhelm and pumpkin beers are best reserved for an after-dinner treat, brown ales go perfectly with the root veggies and hearty meat dishes of fall.
Options for brown ales are vast and varied, and many Pittsburgh brewers have made the style a staple of their lineups. East End’s Fat Gary is a classic low-alcohol, English-style version, and Hop Farm’s One Nut Brown has notes of chocolate and toasted nuts. For a full-on American take, try Wynona’s Big Brown Ale from Voodoo Brewing, which is “big” with ample hops and a 7.3 percent ABV.
Brown ales: They aren’t flashy, but they’re a lovely addition to your fall beer rotation.