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.