The ubiquitous brown ale is about as flavorful as water. But a handful of breweries are giving the style a much-needed makeover.
Like India pale ales, their straightforward recipes make them popular with beginning homebrewers, while their low alcohol levels, moderate flavors, and mild bitterness make them popular among casual drinkers.
Unlike IPAs, though, brown ales historically haven't had much range. They're all about moderation and balance: a decent malt backbone—but not too strong!—some hops—but not too much!—some caramel, chocolate, and fruit flavors, all in perfect, dull harmony. Perhaps that's why browns, unlike IPAs, porters, and stouts, have largely been ignored by the extreme beer folks.
Recently, though, a few breweries have been trotting out what they call double or imperial brown ales—stronger on the malt, hops, and alcohol, with a darker color, thicker head, and more caramel and chocolate flavors. A few noteworthy examples include Lagunitas's Wilco Tango Foxtrot, Dogfish Head's Palo Santo Marron, Cigar City's Bolita Double Nut Brown Ale, and Clown Shoes's Brown Angel.
It's not the first time brown ales have doubled down. Before World War II, double brown ales were widespread in England; Whitbread Double Brown was a particularly popular brand. But higher-alcohol beers died out in England after the war, and brown ales settled into a binary, geographic split, with "northern" brown ales being slightly lighter in color but higher in alcohol than their "southern" brethren.
Nevertheless, the style isn't returning uncontested. Many people think that double brown ales share too many characteristics with porters to count as their own subcategory—especially when the Beer Judge Certification Program's style guide includes a "brown porter," which sounds awfully like, well, a very strong brown ale.
On the other hand, the brewers behind the recent wave of double browns argue for a few points of distinction: a double brown, like a normal brown, should have little or none of the coffee and other roasted flavors of a porter. It should be higher in alcohol and much lighter in color.
Most of the double browns I know of are hyperlocal products, available either exclusively at a brewpub or in limited distribution—Cambridge Brewing just started offering one at their Cambridge, Massachusetts location. Still, East Coasters can probably locate either the Dogfish Head or the Cigar City offerings with minimal trouble (if you live in New York City, hit up the Whole Foods on the Bowery).
All three are fantastic, though my personal favorite is Cigar City's Bolita (which the brewery has also tricked out in a variety of limited-release versions, like "coconut aged"). It's got everything a brown ale should have, but twice as intense—it's boozy, creamy, nutty, chocolaty. It's as if that number-cruncher down the hall, the one with the whiny voice and penchant for spreadsheets, had a second career as an exotic dancer. You'll never look at accountants the same way again.
Image: Russ Neumeier/flickr