Brown ale is one of the oldest known English beer styles, with mentions in literature extending back to the 16th century. With the rise of porters and stouts in the early 1700s, the term “brown ale” became more of a generic description for the spectrum of darker beers than its own distinct style. Greater distinction among styles evolved in the early 1800s as porters and stouts adopted usage of the new black patent malt. The brown ale style was fairly obscure before a resurgence in the early 20th century behind brands like Mann’s Brown Ale, Whitbread Double Brown, and Newcastle Brown Ale. As American craft brewing grew in the 1980s, commercial examples of brown ales began to emerge as distinctly American versions. Pete’s Wicked Ale was created by Pete Slosberg to be darker and hoppier than British examples. Many American examples have followed this path with the use of American hop varieties, while some like Goose Island Hex Nut Brown attempted to maintain a close connection with contemporary English examples. To compare some of the options in today’s market of brown ales, we conducted a blind tasting of offerings ranging from local to nationally distributed craft breweries. Beers were procured from Barley Island, Brooklyn, Dark Horse, Dogfish Head, and People’s and served in a random order to our tasting panel. The identity of each beer was not revealed until after the panelists had submitted their individual rankings. Joining me on the panel for this session were Jake Keefer, Ryan Mills, and Bob Pennington. Here is a summary of each beer sampled, with the brewery’s description followed by the panel’s tasting comments. Beer #1: Dark Horse Brewing Boffo Brown Ale – The Boffo Brown Ale is on the “full body” scale pushing the envelope of what an American Brown Ale is to most people. The beer has a very deep/dark color of brown with a nice creamy tan head. The mouthfeel of the beer is very soft and is very drinkable. Flavors of malt, caramel, toffee, and a mild earthy nutty finish allow this beer to be paired with hearty food and sips of bourbon. 6.5% ABV
|Bob: I found this to have a minimal head on pouring. The color is coppery brown. There was a pronounce caramel sweet flavor. The mouth feel was slight with a bit of dryness. There was a bit of a nutty flavor. This was very enjoyable. I would buy this beer.
Bob’s Rank: 2
|Jake: This beer was pretty tasty with a moderate hop aroma and a decent roastiness that combines with the bitterness of the hops quite nicely. There was a richness to this beer, from the toffee character, that really put this amongst the best sampled. The hop flavor might have been a little bit lacking, for my tastes, and it was just missing that something special to make it my #1 choice. That said, Boffo Brown was technically superb and therefore it earned spot #2 in my rankings.
Jake’s Rank: 2
|Nathan: Big initial impression of toffee and caramel in the nose that fades a bit to reveal some chocolate malt. The hop aroma on this one is very low. Light brown color with poor head retention from the bottle. Wonderful malt flavor that showcases the dominant toffee and caramel from the aroma with hints of chocolate and roast followed by a bit of earthy hop flavor. There is a bit of alcohol warming in the finish with a medium level of lingering bitterness. Lacking some of the hop character I like in a Brown Ale, but the malt flavor was a standout and made for a really nice drinking beer.
Nathan’s Rank: 3
|Ryan: Boffo Brown wasn’t what I initially expected from a Brown Ale, but I have to say that it was one of my favorites of the panel, not because it was a great American Brown ale but because it exhibited a number of qualities I like in beer. The style that I felt it most closely resembled was a small English Barleywine. While there was the presence of toffee and caramel, the hops and roast flavors (usually found in brown ales) were lacking. The beer was dominated by the aroma and flavor of dried fruit such as plums and raisins and the slight oxidized sherry character that comes with alcohol and age.
Ryan’s Rank: 2
Beer #2: Brooklyn Brown Ale – This is the award-winning original American brown ale, first brewed as a holiday specialty, and now one of our most popular beers year-round. A blend of six malts, some of them roasted, give this beer its deep russet-brown color and complex malt flavor, fruity, smooth and rich, with a caramel, chocolate and coffee background. Generous late hopping brings forward a nice hop aroma to complete the picture. Brooklyn Brown Ale is full-flavored but retains a smoothness and easy drinkability that has made it one of the most popular dark beers in the Northeast. 30 IBU 5.6% ABV
|Bob: This beer also presented a thin head on pour. The color is a clear, dark copper brown. I found a very light hop flavor with a slight astringency or dryness. The mouth feel was good with perceptible carbonation. This beer had a rather odd component to the aroma and flavor.
Bob’s Rank: 5
|Jake: Here was a pretty creamy beer which I enjoyed, but was quite low on flavor. It had almost no hop flavor or aroma, with some light, very light, caramely notes. There was a bitterness that wasn’t hop or malt derived, after discussing it with the other members of the panel we concluded it was likely a medicinal off flavor, odd for such a large brewery.
Jake’s Rank: 5
|Nathan: Nice caramel malt in the aroma, but there is also a noticeable green apple character. Medium/dark brown in color with medium carbonation. The flavor features more of the English-style nutty malt character with very low hop aroma and flavor. There is something lingering here that distracts from the beer. I perceived some green apple in the flavor in addition to the medicinal phenols noted by others.
Nathan’s Rank: 5
|Ryan: I am sure my peers have chronicled the shortcomings of this beer, but from my experience with other Brooklyn beers, I believe this was an unfortunate batch. Behind the noticeable medicinal and bubblegum phenols were rich undertones of nuttiness and toffee. Those flavors lingered on the palette through the finish with the help of a body that was medium to full.
Ryan’s Rank: 5
Beer #3: Barley Island Dirty Helen Brown Ale – A medium-bodied Brown ale with moderate hop bitterness that has a unique slightly nutty flavor in the finish. Dry-hopped to enhance the hop aroma. Dirty Helen was a famous tavern owner in Milwaukee. She was known for her dirty mouth, cussing out any customer that ordered a brand of scotch or whiskey that she did not carry. 25 IBU 5.2% ABV
|Bob: Slightly more carbonated than the previous two beers. Slightly more pronounced hop in this one. Drinking this was pleasant experience in general. Maybe a bit thin in the malts. I would buy this beer.
Bob’s Rank: 4
|Jake: A low roast character pairs with an aggressive american hopping to really dry out my palate. I got a lemony character from the hops which was really interesting, but probably not the best choice for a brown ale. This was a good beer, but a little unbalanced.
Jake’s Rank: 3
|Nathan: Here are the hops! This one has a dominant floral/citrus hop character with a distinct lemon note. The hop flavor is also nicely showcased in the flavor, followed by a chocolate malt note, and a nice drying finish with medium bitterness. Very enjoyable beer – a little more supporting malt character would put this over the top.
Nathan’s Rank: 2
|Ryan: Dirty Helen turned out to be my favorite, not only because it offered some of the flavors and aromas I enjoy most, but it most closely described an American Brown Ale in my mind. The nose brought about strong lemony citrus notes with a subdued malt profile. The clean citrus hop character was strengthened by a slight woodsy flavor, also derived from hops. While this beer may not have exhibited a strong caramel, toffee, and roast malt presence, the hop flavors and aromas matched those levels seen in most American Ales. The bright flavors and thin to medium body, makes this beer ideal for warmer weather.
Ryan’s Rank: 1
Beer #4: People’s Brewing Mr. Brown – American Style Brown Ale… “That’s Mr. Brown to you!” We used a lot of base malt and four different dark malts in this beer resulting in a complex malt character and a warming alcohol flavor. This is a great cold weather beer, warming and smooth to take away the chill. We balanced it with Kent Goldings hops. 47 IBU 7% ABV
|Bob: This is the darkest beer so far. It has a thin head. Nice malt flavor with maybe a bit of bread and roast flavors. The aroma was a good malt hop balance. I felt that this beer had a nice overall character that may be from the water. I seemed to pick up some mineral/salt flavors.
Bob’s Rank: 1
|Jake: Mr. Brown’s nose was very carmely and toffee with almost no hop character. A quite high hop bitterness with almost no flavor to help round it out. A roast character was present but moderately low. I didn’t seem to be a fan of the specific hops used in this brew. (The coffee version of this beer, either Hearthstone Brown or Bavarian Brown, is spectacular. It is available at Hearthstone Coffee shop in Fishers.)
Jake’s Rank: 4
|Nathan: Bready and roasty malt character combined with a lemon/earthy hop character in the aroma. Very dark brown, nearing porter territory in color. The malt character is dominated by bready, roasty notes with a hint of tobacco; the toffee and caramel perceived in other examples is not as prevalent here. The balance in flavors is nicely done. This is a really difficult one for me to rank. It’s a good beer and offers more complexity than the other examples so far, but that perversely works against the drinkability for me. Which makes me sound boring. But you probably already knew that.
Nathan’s Rank: 4
|Ryan: People’s brown had the flavors I anticipate in Brown Ales. However, I felt none of those flavors were particularly strong, and therefore, led to a nuanced tasting experience. The opaque black beer had a light aroma with noticeable notes of toffee and citrus. I was able to identify numerous flavors such as raisins, roasted malt, toffee, and nuttiness. Hops were not forgotten. Apparent hop bitterness was complimented and perpetuated by the roast, and it extended long after the finish.
Ryan’s Rank: 3
Beer #5: Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale – A cross between a Scotch Ale, an India Pale Ale and an American Brown, Indian Brown Ale is well-hopped and malty at the same time. The beer has characteristics of each style that inspired it: the color of an American Brown, the caramel notes of a Scotch Ale, and the hopping regimen of an India Pale Ale. We dry-hop the Indian Brown Ale in a similar fashion to our 60 Minute IPA and 90 Minute IPA. This beer is brewed with Aromatic barley and organic brown sugar. 50 IBU 7.2% ABV
|Bob: This is a very dark brown beer with a moderate level of carbonation on the first pour. This was the best hopped of the lot with a good balance of malts. The malts were very sweet with a touch of raisin and mild undercurrent of roast. The second pour was of a different bottling and was not consistent with the first bottle. Rated 3 largely because of the batch mixtures.
Bob’s Rank: 3
|Jake: A moderately low hop flavor combines to round out the moderate bitterness offered by the hops. Some nice roast character, combines with the toffee sweetness and a dark fruit character to offer a quite complex and interesting brew. The second bottle we sampled of this was infected, but only made it better! My previous statements were based on the first bottle, which was my personal favorite. A #1 spot for this, unavailable in Indiana, beer.
Jake’s Rank: 1
|Nathan: Another example that leans toward the dark brown side of the color scale with heavy roasted malts in the aroma. This beer has a complex nutty and roasty malt character nicely balanced with citrus hop character. Toffee and chocolate notes come through with medium bitterness in the finish. There is a lot going on here, but it’s well balanced and easy to go back for more. Might not be quite as easy drinking as beers 1 and 3, but the total package inches this to the top of my list in a close call.
Nathan’s Rank: 1
|Ryan: The first bottle of Dogfish Head’s India Brown exhibited an initial aroma of coffee that gave way to a bready and toffee nose. The flavor was typified by subtle roasted coffee notes along with dried fruit. The hops were relatively low and piney, woodsy, and lemony in nature. The hop bitterness was low to medium. As for the second bottle, I was more than happy to finish it, since it had an obvious infection of acetic acid, which made for a wonderful sour ale, exhibiting the vinegar flavor of a Flanders Red (my favorite style). Despite the inconsistency, I continue to look forward to trying Dogfish Head’s offerings when I can find them outside of this state.
Ryan’s Rank: 4
And the results are in……. As you can see in the individual ratings, it was a difficult decision among our top four beers. That may sound like lip service, but the total scores for each beer will illustrate just how close this one was. We used a model where the lowest number of points would win (a 1st place vote = 1 point, a 2nd place vote = 2 points, etc). After tallying up the scores, our collective ranking determined the final order (drum roll please):
|Fifth Place: Brooklyn Brown Ale (20 points)|
|Fourth Place: People’s Brewing Mr. Brown (12 points)|
|Third Place: Barley Island Dirty Helen Brown Ale (10 points)|
|First Place (tie): Dark Horse Boffo Brown and Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale (9 points)|
One interesting aspect of this tasting was the quality control issues of the national brands. We had two bottles of beer for each example, with the second available for reinforcements after our initial analysis. I’d like to try the Brooklyn Brown again, because both bottles of it had noticeable off-flavors that were probably an anomaly but knocked it out of contention in this tasting. The second bottle of Dogfish Head Indian Brown had a wild yeast contamination that turned it into a surprisingly good sour ale. Reactions to that were mixed as some members of the panel may have knocked it down a bit, while Jake and I gave the benefit of the doubt and scored it based on our notes from the first bottle. I sought out Dogfish Head Indian Brown as a member of our lineup because it’s the first beer that really hooked me on this style. But you may already be aware that obtaining it takes a little effort for Indiana residents these days (ie. driving across state lines). Barring that type of effort, you still have some great options. If you prefer your beers a bit on the maltier side, our panel would endorse picking up some Dark Horse Boffo Brown Ale. If you’d prefer a hoppier version, grab the Barley Island Dirty Helen. Of course, it’s also worth noting that People’s Mr. Brown earned the coveted top pick of our hostess Poppi Rocketts. It’s well worth a try if you’re looking for something with a little more complexity. Big thanks to Bob, Jake, and Ryan for serving on the panel and a bigger thanks to you for reading this far. These events are a lot of fun, and we just may offer up some additional guest spots to readers in the future. Be sure to follow us on Facebook to be informed when the next opportunity rolls around. Cheers, Nathan