Autumn is a time of in-betweens. Come September, we begin to move away from the lighter beers of summer toward the hearty, warming beers of winter.
But the season isn't yet bitter enough for those. The crisp coolness of the fall air calls for hearty but drinkable malty beers with copper, amber, red and brown colors that reflect the changing leaves. It's the season of Oktoberfest lagers, amber ales and roasty brown ales.
Beer drinkers often dismiss brown ales as boring, but nothing could be further from the truth. Though not as rich and roasty as porters or stouts, brown ales abound with coffee and chocolate flavors accompanied by complementary touches of caramel, biscuit and toast. They're really quite complex. And if you want an all-around food beer, brown ale is it. The kilned malt flavors are perfect with everything from roasted or grilled meats and vegetables to alpine cheeses and baked desserts.
Brown ales come in two basic types — English and American. The English variety tends to have a lower alcohol content with subtle roasted malt character and more prominent notes of caramel, toffee and biscuit. Bitterness is low, and there may be hints of herbal hops or fermentation derived from orange marmalade.
The American version can be somewhat stronger, although it is by no means a strong beer. The coffee and chocolate roast may be noticeably higher, with the caramel and toast still in supporting roles. There is typically a more noticeable hop flavor, sometimes featuring the citrusy American varieties.
The best known of the English browns is Newcastle Brown Ale. Often disparaged, it is actually a good representation of the style. Toffee and toasted malt are the dominant flavors, complemented by a bit of chocolate. Any sweetness in the beer is tempered by moderate hop bitterness and low earthy and floral hop flavors. It has a dry finish that emphasizes chocolate roast and caramel.
Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale is the most authentic example available in the Twin Cities. The aroma is more caramel and orange than roast, with only a hint of bitter chocolate malt coming through. Chocolate and coffee flavors are stronger, with the roastiness accentuating the moderate hop bitterness and dry finish. Caramel and biscuit malt are still the main event, and a hint of herbal hop provides support.
Cigar City Brewing's Maduro is another fine example of English brown ale that has a fuller body and smoother mouthfeel than Samuel Smith's. Toffee and toasted malt are still the stars, joined by dark chocolate and espresso notes and rounded out by a low, woody hop character.
One of my favorites in the English style is the Nut Brown Ale from AleSmith Brewing Co. Notes of Tootsie Roll-like chocolate and medium-roast coffee stand in a delicate balance with the toffee and biscuit of kilned and caramelized malt. Hints of earthy hops and a light but lingering bitterness fill out the profile.
Brooklyn Brewery's Brooklyn Brown Ale straddles the line between English and American brown ale. Biscuity malt flavors combine with luscious toffee and toast, and a touch of roasted malt adds oomph to the moderately bitter hops. Light, orange-marmalade notes hover over the top. It's a crisp and easy-to-drink quaff that will let you enjoy a few pints.
Moose Drool from Montana's Big Sky Brewing Co. is one of the best known American brown ales. Deep mahogany in color with a lasting off-white head, this beer has an initial malt sweetness that is followed by hints of toast and cocoa. Moderate and balancing bitterness with herbal/spicy hop flavors round things out. The finish is moderately dry, leaving you wanting more.
A more pronounced and slightly citrusy hop presence makes Ellie's Brown Ale from Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo., a classic example of the American style. The hop flavor is joined by a subtle hop bitterness that feels tingly on the tongue. Though the hops are more pronounced than in other brown ales, this is still a malt-driven beer. Dark chocolate roast is the main driver, supported by notes of brown sugar, nuts and vanilla.
For something locally brewed, try Caress Me Brown from Dual Citizen Brewing Co. in St. Paul. At just over 6% alcohol, it's slightly stronger than most other browns. A Tootsie-Roll blend of dark chocolate and caramel is the main player. Toffee and burnt sugar are there to support, along with a hint of raisin. Moderate bitterness first makes an appearance in a finish that lingers on biscuit and roast.
Those craving a brown with more heft will find satisfaction in Ominous Double Brown Ale from St. Paul's Bad Weather Brewing Co. Ominous evokes the anticipation of winter's approach. It starts with a nose of caramel and toasted grain, with background notes of dry, bitter chocolate, plums and orange peel. On the palate, the chocolate comes to the front backed by sweeter caramel and toasted flavors that carry over from the aroma. It's a pleasant sipper that leaves with lingering hints of vanilla, spice and dark fruit.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.