This Holiday Season, Consider the Brown Ale
What merlot is to wine and vodka is to spirits, brown ale is to beer. As Pretty Things cofounder Martha Holley-Paquette begrudgingly admits, “Brown ales aren’t sexy.” In a craft landscape infatuated with brazenly hopped India pale ales, mouth-puckering sours, and barrel-aged everything, brown ales are routinely regarded as, well, boring.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The 17th century beer style, defined by something as generic as color, spans a broad spectrum ranging from hoppy American brown ales to English milds to Belgian bruins. Each subcategory is distinctive and diverse, but overwhelmingly, what defines them is a chameleon-like ability to complement food.
From smoky barbecue to sizzling Mexican, brown ales are a no-brainer. This universal accompaniment works particularly well with Thanksgiving classics like roasted poultry, herb-laced stuffing, and umami-rich mashed potatoes. Here are five of our local favorites (and one boozy bonus) that’ll have you re-thinking this neglected, yet food-friendly beer style.
1. Hill Farmstead George
Alcohol by Volume: 6%
Just getting to Shaun Hill’s rural Greensboro, Vermont brewery is an ordeal with its tractor-pocked dirt roads and its northerly position within the state. Then there’s the limitations on growler fills, implemented to keep Hill Farmstead’s notoriously lengthy lines from consuming more than half your day. So, that begs the question, do you brave the journey and use up one of your three purchases on an American brown ale when there are so many enticing double pale ales and Imperial IPAs on tap? You do if you’re not scared off by the style’s ho-hum reputation and you spring for a sample of this woodsy, cocoa-laden stunner packed with Centennial, Cascade, and Columbus hops.
2. Pretty Things Saint Botolph’s Town
Alcohol by Volume: 5.9%
Described as a “rustic dark ale” by Pretty Things’ Dann and Martha Paquette, this nutty brown ale in unimpeded by the type of resiny hops that tend to find their way into most modern craft interpretations. Inspired by English beers like Theakston’s Old Peculier and Samuel Smith’s Yorkshire Stingo, Saint Botolph’s Town focuses instead on bold mouthfeel, which comes courtesy of torrefied wheat and malted oats. Pretty Things’ brown ale is oozing with viscous notes of chocolate, raisins, and toffee, and thanks to an addition of German ale yeast, dried coconut.
3. Clown Shoes Burnt Caramel
Alcohol by Volume: 7%
With labels that seemingly mirror the gaudy cover art of science fiction scribe Piers Anthony and a company name that’s easily the most inane in the market, it would be easy to take Clown Shoes lightly. But this Ipswich-based contract-brewer consistently churns out great beer, particularly with darker ales like their Blaecorn Unidragon and Undead Party Crasher. Their Burnt Caramel brown ale, meant to be a sweeter, more austere counterpart to their year-round Brown Angel, is the perfect end to a meal. Brewed in conjunction with Cambridge’s Toscanini’s Ice Cream, Clown Shoes combines 500 pounds of burnt caramel from Germany along with Canadian Two Row, Caramel malt, Crystal malt, and Black malt, for a surprisingly balanced ale with aromas of molasses, cola, and toasty malt.
4. Peak Organic Nut Brown
Alcohol by Volume: 4.7%
The first beer ever produced commercially at Portland, Maine’s Peak Organic, this traditional English-style brown is undergoing what brewer Jon Cadoux has dubbed, a “Nutbrownassiance.” Over the past several months, Cadoux says he’s had to quadruple production to keep up with demand on his crisp, quaffable, slightly smoky brown ale. Using a blend of Chocolate, Munich, and Caramel malts, as well as light dosage of Hallartau hops, Peak’s homage to Samuel Smith’s trademark Nut Brown Ale is a welcome throwback to a more sessionable era. “Like a lot of breweries, you have a couple beers that you brew at the beginning that are strong, but the growth isn’t there. But since this summer, Nut Brown has had this crazy renaissance in our portfolio and I couldn’t tell you why.”
5. Pioneer Brewing Path of the Unknown
Alcohol by Volume: 10%
After a brief partnership with Rapscallion Brewery, Pioneer Brewing in back in the hands of founder Todd Sullivan who moved operations from Sturbridge to Connecticut earlier this year. Contract-brewing out of East Hartford’s Olde Burnside, Pioneer now focuses on the three high octane offerings in their Manifest Destiny series, including Path of the Unknown, a double brown ale brewed with six types of malt and American-grown Willamette, Nugget, Cascade, and Columbus hops. This decadent imperial beer—at the opposite end of the spectrum from Peak’s Nut Brown—pours like motor oil and has heady aromas of dark chocolate, fudge, pine resin, and bitter cold brew coffee.
Bonus: Smuttynose Really Old Brown Dog
Alcohol by Volume: 11%
Originally part of Smuttynose’s Big Beer series, which were packaged in bombers and released seasonally in limited quantities, the New Hampshire brewery wisely decided to up production and distribute in more manageable, year-round four-packs. Technically an old ale, this boozy alternative to their regular Old Brown Dog (itself a standout brown) is now being aged on medium-toast oak chips for added complexity. This fireside companion has an amaro-like nose of roasted chestnuts, fresh vanilla bean pods, and brown sugar, for the ultimate way to wind down after a long meal.